The Navy's No. 2 officer is leading a push to get more women into commands across the service. Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michelle Howard, a surface warfare officer, believes women should make up a quarter of every command, a tipping point where women will be a big enough presence to foster a command that supports women and is resistant to stereotyping.
Howard knows this issue closely. She was in the third co-ed Annapolis class when she graduated in 1982, and had the experience of being one of the few women in the wardroom. She moved up the ranks and became the first black woman to command a U.S. Navy warship. Howard, who is the Navy's first female four-star admiral, wants to ensure the service does everything it can to keep talented, career-focused women in the ranks.
Howard is also working to raise awareness of cyber warfare and the dangers of cyber intrusion that can be only one email away.
Howard spoke to Navy Times in her Pentagon office March 18. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity.
Q. Some say the Navy has a problem retaining women, who disproportionately leave mid-career. What do you think about this trend, and what do you tell women who are on the fence about staying in versus family needs or wanting to pursue alternate career and educational paths?
A. When you looked at patterns for women enlisted, there is a little bit of a drop off after that first enlistment, but then the pattern stays pretty much the same until 20 years. There's a dividing line I think that comes with whatever additional responsibilities officers have.
Forty-six percent of the labor workforce is female in this country, and we make up fifty-one percent of the population. You have parents making these decisions of who's going to be the primary breadwinner, who's going to be the secondary breadwinner, are they going to be co-breadwinners, and then how do you raise these great citizens? They're actually facing the same choices and challenges that their civilian counterparts have. I think where we can be helpful is, if we want to retain folks where that is going to be their focus, a primary focus of their life, we've got to make sure that childcare is [more] available for a broader number of hours. We've got to look at career paths that focus less on timing and focus more on milestones. When we have a need, we'll eliminate age caps. If we need you as a healthcare professional, and you're a surgeon with specific skills, we'll say, we're really okay with the fact that you're not 30.
Q. What are your priorities as the VCNO?
A. I told the CNO there were two things of interest in my where I thought I could make progress: gender integration and cyber culture.
Gender integration is about, do we have the right policies in place, do we have the right ratio of women for our organization to have normalized command climates?
Some of our ships are modified to have about 10 percent of women on board. Some of them are up to over 50 percent of women on board. But when you think about what's the right percentage you want to have in order to have a command climate that better mimics what you see socially, there's probably a threshold. We probably ought to get to at least 25 percent women on every unit. When we went gender neutral in our detailing, we saidgo, 'You're quartermaster, you go here. There's a billet and bunk for you. You go there.' We still have to pay more attention to the percentage of women we're putting in these units and start working our way to w[here] we don't have units that have very few women. We pay attention to it, so that we don't inadvertently isolate women in some places.
Q. In terms of 25 percent at most commands, how many years do you think that would take?
A.You don't want to start just rip people, men or women, out of sea billets to make this happen. It would probably have to be a four-year to five-year plan to start making sure that all of our ships have the berthing and then start working our way up in percentages. But like any valuable journey, you've just got to start and do it.
Q. You were one of the first women in your wardrooms. What do you take from that experience?
A. The numbers matter when you're talking about integration. When you have small numbers, you will always probably be dealing with accusations of tokenism. It's hard to get past stereotype filters because there are not enough for the dominate group to go, 'Oh, everybody is kind of different. I can take each one one-on-one.' You've got to get to some sort of critical mass when you're talking affinity groups and you're talking gender for relationships that are akin to the relationships that you see in your hometown. Really, it's not whether it's the Navy. It could be a research department at a company. If you don't have the right numbers, then you don't get past a lot of these challenging issues for people to be successful.
Q. What are your focuses for cyber?
A. My perspective is that everyone is the cyber, active, reserve, and civilians. We operate and live in this domain. There's not a person in the Department of the Navy who probably doesn't have a desktop, doesn't deal with Microsoft products, Excel spreadsheets, databases, transference of data, email, and so we are all in this domain.
We have within this domain some folks who are key specialists on the hardware site if you're like an IT-man or an information professional. And so we do have cryptologists ... and intelligence folks. Tenth Fleet [U.S. Fleet Cyber Command] says they've probably got about 5,000 [cyber] folks who work for them. We, like the other services, are growing our cyber-mission teams — about 1,700 folks. In the end, everybody has to understand: They're in this domain. It's like damage control [personnel qualifications] on the ship.
Q. I'd imagine cyber can be a special challenge today, with more sailors having smart phone access aboard ship or at work. How are the Navy's workplace rules catching up to this?
A. Like any other workplace, we have rule sets with which the sailors are supposed to comply. You have a certain rule set, information that you can't post on social media, you don't expose work. We have certain locations where sailors can leave or go and do that, so we've sort of physically segmented by time and location what and where sailors can do.
We're going to have to start becoming more sophisticated. I'm really excited about MCPON [Mike Stevens'] pilot project, where we're just going to go ahead and issue these tablets to the sailors. We've got to figure out how to leverage the strengths of this domain and start managing opportunity and behavior through software and through apps.
Q. If the pilot program to give tablet computers to recruits works, where do you see this initiative going?
A. We have got to come into the modern world. It's less about what does it mean for the Navy today than the sailors we're going to recruit. I spoke to a seventh-grade science technology engineering math class in Brunswick, Maine. They issue in May every student a laptop, and then they have a laptop when they go to school. Everything is there, homework, projects, parent's conferences. People can't say, 'I can't afford it.' Their child has a laptop. They live their lives electronically, which probably gives them a leg up for the modern workforce.
We are going to start having young adults grow up like this. Then we want to send them to boot camp in the Navy, where we're going to give them a green book and a pencil and we're going to say something like, 'Please write a letter home to your parents to tell them that you're okay,' when we ought be saying, 'Send an email or text them, and let them know you're okay.' Eventually the up-and-coming, potential sailors are going to look at us and go, 'My goodness. You guys are Fred Flintstone. I don't want to go work for an organization like that.' We have got to integrate ourselves into the way life has become.