Bias in Battledress: Fixing the Hidden Problems of Military Prejudice

August 25, 2015

For the month of August, we have chosen to feature two original contributions in Strategic Outpost from our next generation of national security thinkers. We hope you enjoy these thoughtful pieces from young men and women already rising to be the future leaders in this field. We’ll return to our regular Barno & Bensahel columns in September. Meanwhile, best wishes for some great summertime reading!


The military services have until October 1 to recommend if any of their occupational specialties should remain closed to women. Most services have hinted that they will open all opportunities to the most qualified candidate while others are expected to maintain the status quo. This is a historic moment that represents an opportunity for the military services to break through the institutional biases that have hindered optimal development of the next generation of warfighters. This juncture echoes others in history, where institutions have been pushed to examine their assumptions about their members’ capabilities and to discard unhelpful biases in order to maximize their organizational effectiveness. Today, it is especially critical for the U.S. military to get this right as it strives to create a future fighting force with fewer resources.

We often do not recognize our own biases without someone else pointing them out to us. Institutional biases prevent organizations from achieving their full potential because they encourage those in positions of authority to maintain the status quo rather than unlock the potential of all members. This is also where a quick look at history can help illuminate a way ahead as women increasingly earn their positions in historically male-only units.

1851: The Irish Cop

In 1851, Barney McGinniskin was the first Irish immigrant to become a police officer in the Boston Police Department. At the time, Irish immigrants and their families constituted 40 percent of Boston’s population, but city leaders believed that the Irish were inherently too irresponsible to be police officers. The city marshal claimed that hiring McGinniskin came at the “expense of an American.” Anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic fervor grew as “nativists” stoked the fear of these “immigrants.”

Three years into his tenure, McGinniskin’s anti-Irish boss relieved the 6’2” Boston police officer without cause. No protest was made because the leadership in the city silently consented to this malignant bigotry. Officer McGinniskin’s abilities, merits, and dedication to his duties were not questioned. Instead, socially accepted stereotypes of his nationality ultimately determined his fate.

1942: The Black Soldier

During World War II, intelligence testing of military recruits divided new joins into grades that determined their suitability for serving in various roles. Nearly all black recruits at the time scored in the two lowest grades, identifying them as suited for labor and precluding them from serving in technical and leadership positions. This testing process served to reinforce the military’s institutional bias toward maintaining segregated units under the assumption that the “negro soldier” was naturally less intelligent than his white counterparts. However, what the testing actually identified was the abysmal effect of a Jim Crow education system. Black recruits had not received the same education and preparation as that white recruits had.

These same assumptions about intelligence were also used in aviation to justify keeping black officers out of the cockpit. Despite being college-educated, black officers were expected to fail in flight training. They were provided low-performing white instructors who themselves had low expectations of their black students. Instead of capitalizing on the patriotism and talent of a large population of capable servicemen by integrating them into regular squadrons, those black pilots who succeeded were placed in segregated units where they were overworked due to limited manpower.

2015: The Female Marine

The Crucible is the culminating event of the Marine Corps’ recruit training, where recruits officially earn the title of U.S. Marine after enduring the infamous rigors of boot camp. Unlike the other services, the Marine Corps recruit training is gender segregated; women and men receive the same training, but do so in single-sex formations. Until August 2014, a row of chairs was placed behind the female platoon at the end of every Crucible, in the words of the commanding officer, “for recruits who were too ‘exhausted’ or sore to stand. Conversely, there were no chairs staged behind the male formation.” This type of behavior has a name: “benevolent sexism.” Unlike the previous examples of outward intolerance based on prejudice, benevolent sexism is often well intentioned. Leaders are often acting on a deep-seated bias that women are weaker and less capable, and constantly require assistance. This results in “gender norming,” the watering down of performance standards for all, and ultimately a less capable warfighting organization.

The actions motivated by benevolent sexism perpetuate the underlying assumption of female inferiority by demonstrating to the entire institution on a daily basis that there are lower expectations for female performance. In the case of female Marine Corps recruits, the institution visually demonstrated this low expectation for them even though they had just completed the Crucible under the same conditions and requirements as their male peers. As a result, the Marine Corps continues to produce less-qualified Marines and accepts this status quo without challenging the underlying assumptions that sap its overall effectiveness.


While instructors at The Basic School, the Marine Corps’ leadership school for all new officers, we both personally observed biases — in subordinates, peers, and ourselves. Through discussion and the intent to better ourselves as instructors, we looked into the science of bias and how we could shape officers early on to be better leaders. The following recommendations are based on both our practical experience and academic research.

Recognize and Address Biases: Set one standard for individuals to compete for a position and judge each individual on his or her ability — not on stereotypes. As staff platoon commanders at The Basic School, we were both in charge of training a platoon of lieutenants for six months at a time. As much as we could control it, at no point were Marines given a pass to enforce biases. For example, women had to learn to change amongst their male peers after a hike, and their male peers learned quickly to accept this as normal, so no one really gave it a second thought. As a leader, forcing individuals to recognize and address innate biases often merely requires putting them in a new situation and allowing them to come to quiet terms with it. They then usually see that their fears did not amount to much once they actually experienced the situation.

Good communication with subordinates is required to get them to that goal, followed by tough expectations to keep to a rigorous training schedule. Whether it is a physical or technical skill, leadership or mentorship, your stronger subordinates will succeed if they believe you are giving them a fair shot. Addressing biases is often a delicate dynamic, particularly if the “guilty” individual is unaware or well intentioned. There are times where blatant disrespect requires bureaucratic action, but more often opportunities arise that allow us to point out our biases to each other in a constructive manner. At times, the subordinate plays the mentor. Fostering this environment as a leader is important.

Bring Both Men and Women into the Discussion: Leaders must ensure both men and women are part of the solution. Through education, the military can combat bias within its ranks. A project at Harvard University has studied the effect of bias and established an implicit association test to help expose individuals to their personal biases. This is a simple test that compares how an individual buckets words in different categories (specific to race, sex, or other factors). Although the test may not be a perfect indicator of one’s exact bias, the result of the test is immaterial. Both authors have used the test with student lieutenants. No one has to share the results of their test, but the ensuing conversation afterward addresses the effect of an underlying bias on leadership. It is ideal to set ground rules, primarily dealing with civility and emphasizing intelligent debate instead of heated argument. If it is possible, having a mix of experiences (such as first-generation military, first-generation American, men, women, and people from different demographic backgrounds) provides great stimulus to the conversation. This type of discussion often enables people to relate to each other when they might not otherwise do so. The true impact of the implicit association test is the conversation it creates among military leaders. Through discussion, solutions are born.

Furthermore, it is important that the training incorporates a study of history. Lessons such as those of the Boston Police Department and black service members in World War II are a great way to start, but the conversation needs to lead to how to improve the current military outlook. This requires maturity, honest reflection, and boldness to speak the truth. These traits should come naturally, as they are exactly what the military requires of its leaders. From entry-level training to top-level schools, the military should incorporate bias education into its professional military education series.

Demand More from Military Leadership: Military leaders must actively do more to set the example and enforce uniform expectations. Adjusting to a change in a previously homogenous environment can be challenging, particularly when a new team member is more obviously “different.” The importance is emphasizing task cohesion and setting a firm line that any bigotry will not be tolerated. Simply set the example of “This is our new team member. (S)he will be responsible for this. I expect you to show her/him the ropes.” Period. If you follow up with anything that emphasizes that individual’s “otherness” you are only deepening the chasm the person must cross to connect with peers. Those who have experience with a minority come to realize their biases and adjust sooner than those who have no prior exposure. The example set by those in charge can either further ostracize a minority group and cause discontent among the ranks or create a cohesive fighting force that is more capable than others because of its ability to capitalize on all the talents of its members.

As leaders in the military, it is our responsibility to ensure a more lethal fighting force in the future. Last week, two women graduated from the Army’s grueling Ranger School for the first time. Before this milestone event, institutional bias in the U.S. Army reinforced an assumption that women would simply never be capable of completing its most challenging small unit leadership course. Captain Griest and Lieutenant Haver’s graduation not only repudiates this assumption, it also demonstrates that there is still much talent within the ranks that remains to be harnessed.

Continuing to propagate biases only further stigmatizes minorities that succeed, creating a “unicorn” effect of the initial few that succeed instead of an example of an individual’s potential. The U.S. military will eventually reach a point where those in uniform are judged on their individual skill and not by the average abilities of their sex, race, or other distinguishable group. This is when our services will truly optimize their ability for mission accomplishment because they seek the best for the toughest jobs — regardless of gender.


Bryan Coughlin is a former Marine infantry officer that served in support of Operation Enduring Freedom as a member of 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines. He also twice served as a Staff Platoon Commander at The Basic School. Currently, he is a first year MBA student and Military Veteran Scholar at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

Katey van Dam is a former Marine attack helicopter pilot and combat veteran. She also served as a Staff Platoon Commander at The Basic School. She is currently a first year Strategic Studies MA student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. She is a co-director of the non-partisan initiative No Exceptions.


Photo credit: Cpl Monica Erickson, U.S. Marine Corps


Editor’s note: To ensure the authors’ argument is received in constructive the spirit it is offered, we have chosen to allow capitalization of the term, “Marines” – an exception to the WOTR house style.