Removing photos from promotion and selection boards has had adverse effects on diversity, according to Vice Adm. John Nowell Jr., the chief of naval personnel.
“I think we should consider reinstating photos in selection boards,” Nowell said Tuesday at The Navy League’s 2021 Sea-Air-Space Exposition. “We look at, for instance, the one-star board over the last five years, and we can show you where, as you look at diversity, it went down with photos removed.”
The comments come a little more than a year after the Department of Defense moved to eliminate photos from promotion and selection boards.
“It’s a meritocracy. We’re only going to pick the best of the best, but we’re very clear with our language … that we want them to consider diversity across all areas. Right?” Nowell said. “And therefore … I think having a clear picture on this just makes it easier. So, actually, our data show that it would support adding photos back in.”
Nowell isn’t the only one who believes the lack of photos have harmed diversity efforts.
Brig. Gen. A.T. Williamson, director of the Manpower Plans & Policy Division for the Marine Corps, expressed similar sentiments based on what he’s seen in his service, although he acknowledged the Marine Corps is still collecting data on the most recent board season.
The Marine Corps is completing a survey investigating bias in the service and where bias is found, it will be corrected, Williamson said.
“If we find out that there [are] disparities within the way we do business within the service, we need to be intellectually curious enough to ask why and figure out why and then figure out what we need to do,” Williamson said.
In July 2020, then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper issued a memo instructing the Defense Department to “remove photographs from consideration by promotion boards and selection processes and develop additional guidance, as applicable, that emphasizes retaining qualified and diverse talent.”
At the time, Esper also signaled that sex, names and other identifying information could be next on the chopping block since they may “may trigger unconscious bias.”
The Navy was a step ahead of the Pentagon when the memo was issued, and announced several weeks prior that it was examining promotion photos as part of Task Force One Navy, which was established in June 2020 to address systemic racism within the service.
A report on the task force’s initial findings was released in February 2021, and advised the Navy to evaluate the structure currently in place for promotions, detailing and milestone job opportunities.
The report, which included more than 50 recommendations, also suggested the Navy broaden the diversity data included in the records of selection board proceedings and several other submissions in an attempt to bolster transparency and “reduce perceptions of favoritism or bias.”
This isn’t the first time promotion photos have been nixed for the Navy. The service had previously barred photos from the promotion process for officers from 2016 to 2018.
The Army was the first service to bar officer promotion photos in June 2020.