Last week, a brass ceiling was shattered. For the first time in its 238-year history, the United States Navy promoted a woman to the rank of four-star admiral, the service’s highest rank. Admiral Michelle J. Howard is now Vice Chief of Naval Operations, making her the second highest-ranking officer in the Navy.
Hopefully, the significance of her promotion will be felt in ways both large and small. During her July 1 promotion ceremony, Admiral Howard told those in attendance that when she tried to order her new four-star shoulder boards — an essential Navy uniform item — she was informed that four-star should boards did not exist for women’s uniforms. A special contract had to be put in place to create them. Now they exist, and not only does Admiral Howard wear them on her uniform, but any women who follow her will not need a special contract before they too can wear them.
Admiral Howard’s promotion is a tremendous milestone, and one she has earned. This is not the first time she has broken new ground. She was also the first African American woman to command a Naval ship and the first African American woman in any military branch to reach three stars. Her promotion also makes her the first African American Vice Chief of Naval Operations. Another fun fact: Admiral Howard was the commander of Task Force 151 when, in April 2009, that counter-piracy task force saved Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates.
That the Navy has promoted its first woman to the rank of four-star admiral is a momentous event in Naval history. But whether Admiral Howard’s promotion is, as Navy Secretary Ray Mabus called it, a “representation of how far we have come,” is murkier. Simply put, recognition of one woman’s incredible dedication and accomplishments does not remedy an entire history’s wrongs.
Politicians, politicos, and the rest of us have spent a great deal of time in recent months discussing the military’s willingness – and ability – to foster an environment in which women and men have equal opportunities to succeed. In particular, there has been much debate about how the military handles sexual assault. As Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps Captain and the Executive Director of the Service Women’s Action Network compellingly wrote last year for the Washington Post, the military’s failure to respond adequately to incidents of sexual assault and harassment ultimately prevents women from remaining in the service and advancing to positions of leadership. Conversely, Ms. Bhagwati explains, “we aren’t likely to see much change in military culture until there’s a critical mass of women at the top.” She correctly concludes, “the armed forces’ leadership must prove that it cares about our sons and daughters. It can start by ensuring that young women not just join, but stay in and thrive.”
Ms. Bhagwati is right to put the onus for change on military leadership. As this Harvard Business Review blog post recently highlighted, until an organization’s leaders believe that their organization will benefit from true meritocracy, their organization will not achieve true meritocracy.
Admiral Howard’s promotion takes us one small step closer to achieving the critical mass necessary for a culture shift at the highest levels. Admiral Howard herself, in this recent Forbes interview, lamented the lack of role models for young women in the early stages of their careers and spoke of her own personal desire to make “the Navy a place [sailors] want to continue to stay in and become the leadership themselves.” Perhaps she will exert the kind of leadership that will get us to that point more quickly. If so, our Nation will be stronger for it.