Co-authored with Alesha Doan
The Marines nude photo sharing scandal is not a scandal at all. Since 2013, three prominent cases have emerged that involved online targeting, harassment, and stalking of actively serving women in the Marines by their male colleagues. This latest episode simply highlights an ongoing pattern of gendered behavior that enables and perpetuates inequity in the military, which Senator Gillibrand aptly noted while questioning Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller during a Congressional hearing on March 14th. She asked “Why does it have to be different [this time], because you all of the sudden feel it has to be different?” Senator Gillibrand went on to connect this online scandal to broader issues of harassment and inequity women face as they are serving their country in the armed forces.
The reaction and justified outrage expressed by political leaders like Senator Gillibrand, highlights the inadequacy of promises made by Gen. Neller and other military leaders who pledge to “get to the bottom of it” and “hold individuals accountable.” Unfortunately, these earnest declarations continue to frame patterned, systemic organizational issues of discrimination as the flawed behavior of a few individuals. Or, in this latest case, tens of thousands of individual “bad” guys.
In reality, perceiving and treating gender based discrimination and violence as an individual problem is limited and will continue to give rise to scandals. Certainly there is a lot of appeal in viewing gender discrimination and violence from an individual lens. It allows leaders and organizations to maintain the formal and informal policies and practices that contribute to a toxic status quo, while giving the appearance that leaders are taking action to address the issue. Inevitably this routine: scandal - outrage - pledges by leaders to “do better”-- results in a “new” training or more training that is aimed at individual military members.
The problem is that ample research has concluded that a one time training is not effective in changing social norms related to gender. It does not lead to changes in behaviors or practices. These trainings are administered without a commitment to making institutional changes that align policies and practices with the espoused goals of equity and integration. As our own research has demonstrated, this individual approach does not provide institutional support for the minority of military rank-and-file and leaders who push back on discriminatory practices. This individual approach also perpetuates the myth that gender discrimination and violence is individual rather than systemic.
Even once systemic inequalities are revealed in repeated episodes like the nude photo scandal, people often resist changing the structural inequalities. Instead, organizations ask individuals to exit or adapt to a malfunctioning system. For example, some within the Marines have used this episode to push back against the integration of women in combat positions, arguing it will distract from combat readiness (rather than addressing the problematic behavior that creates the “distraction”). Similarly, but less pronounced, our research with women in the Army demonstrates that women are constantly asked to modify their own behavior as a way to mitigate sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. This organizational approach is not unique to the military; it is a familiar solution found in organizations spanning from Silicon Valley (as demonstrated by Uber’s recent scandal) to university campuses (as demonstrated by Title IX lawsuits). Asking people to adapt to a discriminatory workplace simply reinforces the formal and informal practices that maintain it, and puts the burden of change on the recipient of discrimination instead of the organization itself.
Organizational inequity must be confronted with a new perspective that critically examines an organization's functioning, not just from individual behavior, but inclusive of norms, rules, practices, and policies. Until this multilayer institutional perspective is adopted, we will continue the cycle of scandal, followed by outrage, solved by empty promises to hold individuals accountable.