Friday, March 26, 2010

Unless Congress intercedes, the U.S. Navy plans to station women on submarines. The change in policy was announced with no fanfare and has stirred almost no debate. Won’t some wizened old salt please speak out? No? OK, then I’ll take the plunge.

The only sure benefit of stationing women on subs is establishing equality of opportunity. Essential to realizing this ideal is the professionalism of military personnel. Never mind allegations that sexual harassment is rampant.

The practical concern the new policy aims to address has to do with smarts. Sub duty requires personnel of above-average IQ. Intelligence is everywhere in short supply, so the Navy is always in a pinch to staff the sub fleet. Adding women to the candidate pool might help. But there is a catch.

The military fervently woos women, but with little success. Just 15 percent of Navy personnel are women. As a rule, women are more difficult to entice into the military, harder to keep and generally less available for duty (e.g., because of pregnancy) than men are. I don’t see how the Navy’s difficulty in staffing subs would be affected much by adding women to the mix - there simply aren’t many to begin with.

At least some of the few women who are suitable for sub duty will opt out. Submariners must endure a weird and claustrophobic environment. “The total living area for more than 130 people is equivalent to a medium-size house,” states a report prepared for the Navy. And, while at sea for months, one can’t leave the house to go for a walk or visit family. Not everyone can put up with this.

In general, women tend to avoid high-stress jobs, particularly those that involve travel. Psychologists suggest that women are especially vulnerable to social stress. So how will they adapt to the forced camaraderie of life on a sub combined with the isolation that comes from being trapped at the office for months at a time, 20,000 leagues under the sea, with a boatload of men?

Apparently, cost is no barrier to conducting this experiment. The only estimate I’ve come across (from 10 years ago in a newspaper column) is that reconfiguring subs for coed service would cost in the neighborhood of $4.5 million per ship. Reuters news agency reports that the Navy has 71 subs, but it doesn’t say how many are scheduled to be retrofitted. So the final cost, which appears to be prohibitive, is a mystery.

Well, I don’t suppose we have a choice, given the sorry performance record of the sub fleet.

What’s that you say? The fleet is performing adequately if not splendidly? Hmm. The handyman code instructs, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” So why are we doing this?

The reason the Navy is going down this ill-advised path is political correctness. Officers know that speaking out against PC nonsense is career suicide. So only a few (usually disgruntled malcontents with one foot out the door) even contemplate raising the appropriate questions.

Political correctness has a way of putting certain values on a pedestal while making other concerns vanish. When considering whether to put women on subs, gender equity is in the first category, practicality is in the second.

Touching base with reality, one might wonder: Can we afford this? Does it make sense even to attempt what heretofore has been considered imprudent if not foolish?

Luckily, the military has a policy that can be adapted to quell these concerns: Don’t ask, don’t tell.

Michael Farady served as a Navy clinical psychologist and now conducts independent research on sex and gender. His article on the girl-crisis movement appears in the March issue of Review of General Psychology.

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