Editor’s Note: Mary “Missy” Cummings is a professor at Duke University and director of Duke’s Humans and Autonomy Laboratory. She was one of the US Navy’s first female fighter pilots. The views expressed are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Sen. Martha McSally’s revelation that she was raped while serving in the military was shocking to many. During a Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing Wednesday on sexual assault in the military, McSally – who retired in 2010 at the rank of colonel in the US Air Force and was the first American woman to fly in combat after a ban on women was lifted – said that she “was preyed upon and raped by a superior officer.”
She added that commanders “must not be removed from the decision-making responsibility of preventing, detecting, and prosecuting military sexual assault.”
Her story was troubling to hear, but as one of the US Navy’s first female fighter pilots, I am sorry to say I did not find it surprising.
While I fortunately was never raped, I experienced countless incidents of sexual harassment and assault by my peers and superior officers, both at the US Naval Academy and as a fighter pilot. I served from 1988 to 1999, and back then, there was an unspoken understanding that if I wanted to be in the ultimate boys’ club with “the best of the best,” I would say nothing. It is one of the reasons I left the military midcareer and went into academia.
While it is true that since then, the military has attempted to address these problems – it has done so with varying degrees of success. Recent reports about sexual abuse at the military academies, and incidents such as the scandal over female service members’ nude photos being posted in a “Marines United” Facebook group indicate that much more progress is needed.
When I left the military, I thought this kind of culture would not follow me. I was wrong.
I am now a professor of robotics at Duke University and straddle the fields of engineering and computer science. In several respects, both the military and the tech industry, especially in Silicon Valley, have a lot in common – including a critical need to address problems of gender inequality and sexual abuse.
Uber, Google and many other companies have experienced public problems with sexual harassment. Silicon Valley sexism and the marginalization of women even has a name: “Bro Culture.”
For example, in published accounts, women in Silicon Valley report that meals and meetings are routinely held in strip clubs. This practice is straight from the 1990s fighter pilot playbook: We would occasionally “debrief” our flight performance in strip clubs where I would be given important feedback about my flight performance while other pilots were getting lap dances. I find it deeply disturbing that in 30 years, some sectors have not made much progress in terms of workplace professionalism.
Why do these seemingly disparate cultures – military warfighters and “nerdy” data scientists – have such a similar problem? I believe it fundamentally boils down to two issues, a homogeneous culture of elitism and entitlement as well as a lack of committed leadership at all levels.
Both fighter pilots and artificial intelligence developers, quintessential “ingroups,” are at the top of their respective totem poles, possessing skills that require significant training and experience that make them the elite in their domains.
And these are predominantly male domains, with little outside oversight – and their perceived importance to the parent organization is only magnified by society at large. While recruiting more women in these domains is one partial solution, if the underlying anti-social elements that develop in these groups are not addressed, they will never be eliminated.
As the military knows well, real culture change comes from committed leadership and accountability at all levels – peers, middle management and senior leaders. Of these three, peer leadership is often overlooked. Peers lead by example, and a good example of this is the recent pledge by a European economist not to be on a panel that doesn’t have at least one woman.
This kind of grassroots activism could go a long way in setting cultural organizational tones. How about now extending the pledge to “I will not ever suggest to a group of peers at work that we should meet or dine at a strip club (or other demeaning types of activities)”?
All middle managers need not only to improve their recruiting, retention and promotion activities, they also need to address toxic sexist behaviors in the workplace proactively. A common excuse as to why sexist and anti-social behaviors are tolerated in Silicon Valley include “he is an amazing coder and I can’t afford to lose him.” Often these people are shielded from accountability and protected by organizations that only give lip service to a harassment-free workplace culture.
These messages are heard loud and clear by employees: “We promote diversity but only as long as it is convenient to do so.” No one is irreplaceable, and tolerating such behaviors is a core and unaddressed issue for both the military and Silicon Valley as well as workplaces everywhere.
At the highest levels of leadership, for example, the federal government should follow California’s lead and mandate female representation on corporate boards. Along these lines, ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment – to give women equal protection under the US Constitution – should be paramount. It is shameful this legislation, which sets a national core value, is still pending – its limbo status sending a message to both men and women that women are second-class citizens.
The Defense Department has several programs to promote collaboration with Silicon Valley for technology development. Perhaps an additional and even more effective partnership could include these two entities coming together, and joined by other companies that have made measurable strides in corporate culture.
Together, they could then learn in a meaningful way how to build a culture that respects and values women while sending a clear message that sexual harassment will not be tolerated by any employee or military member at any level.