Recognizing that there are challenges specific to the experience of female JOs to which I cannot credibly write, I’ve asked for input from some experienced female officers. The following is a guest post from one such officer, a Lieutenant in the Surface Warfare community who has opted to remain anonymous for professional reasons. This one’s for our sisters.
Congratulations! You have completed your college degree and commissioning program. You now are the newest Ensign in the United States Navy, heading to a warship of your choice. However, you also happen to be female. There have been many advances in both the Navy and the American culture over the years. Just keep in mind that there are some behaviors or actions that women officers must be aware of to be viewed as competent professionals. Let’s start:
Fraternization is completely against the UCMJ. Unfortunately there are many junior officers who commit this crime, some unknowingly. From an informal look, there are many more female SWOs who ruin their careers with “frat” than males. Let’s look at some of the details:
– Female JOs are placed in a unique position. Graduating from college, becoming an officer, moving across the country (or world), and settling into “adult life” can be stressful. You will likely be put in charge of an area that you have little to no experience or knowledge about. This is the same for males. However, there are significantly fewer female officers, especially on frigates, destroyers or submarines. You may be only one of two or three. You may lack the instant social network of college/Greek life/NROTC. It can be a lonely time.
– Sailors at the E-4/E-5 pay grade are generally at the same age as newly commissioned officers. They listen to the same music, watch the same TV shows, and often have the same things in common. Junior officers may find that they have more in common with the Sailors they lead than other officers in the wardroom. It is fine to chit-chat during the work day, but it becomes a problem when it is after hours.
– Some men may see a female officer not as a leader, or an officer, but as a woman. The infamous “o-card”, meaning that a Sailor has had intimate relations with a female officer, still exists (there is an “m-card” for midshipmen, making them targets on their summer cruises). Men of all ranks may talk about the various physical attributes of newly reported officers. If overheard, women must find a way to deal with it. That type of conversation is inappropriate and needs to be addressed immediately. For example, you can say, “Chief, it’s inappropriate for you to be talking about parts of ENS Smith’s body, especially in front of the division. It sets a bad example for the Sailors. If this occurs again, I will address it with the CMEO and Chain of Command.”
– Initially, female officers will receive a lot of attention, whether desired or not. Some women may not have had a serious relationship in college or may not have received a lot of male attention. This may make it hard to handle this attention in the Fleet. They are often flattered from the attention source, regardless of rank, and start down the path towards fraternization.
– Fraternization is not solely a physical or romantic relationship. It may involve business deals, rental agreements, and time spent together off of work. If there is even the slightest appearance of fraternization (i.e. ENS Smith and PO3 were seen at the triathlon arriving at the same time, etc.), this can be horrible for the female officer’s reputation.
– So, how do you manage it? How can you be friendly with your division and yet maintain your professional boundaries? The key is to keep your personal life separate. Do not engage with your Sailors on any form of “social media.” Your Facebook/Twitter, etc., should be for your friends, not for your Sailors to see photos of you from college. There is no reason for you to be linked outside of work. Perhaps, if one of them would like a letter of recommendation after you detach, you can give them your email address (a professional one like email@example.com) and you keep the correspondence professional.
– If you run into your Sailors during a port visit on deployment, there is no reason to run away. Go over to the group, be cordial, stay for a few minutes, and then leave. You should not spend your entire night on liberty with your Sailors. If you run into them out in home port, follow the same procedures. You may also be invited to parties, get-togethers, etc. Unless it is a Division-wide event with your Chief, LPO, etc. attending, say that you have other plans and do not attend. Example from my experience: One of my second classes hosted Thanksgiving at his house, inviting the entire division. All of the single people from the division attended, including me. The Chief and one of the LPOs had families so they celebrated elsewhere. I stayed for the dinner portion, but when they decided to go to the bars, I took my leave. Another example: I was invited by one of my petty officers to attend a farewell party for one of my Sailors. None of the other divisional leadership were invited and many Sailors from the command would be attending (i.e. no other Khaki presence). The event was being held at a bar. I declined.
– Fraternization begins as a slippery slope-spending time one-on-one in divisional spaces discussing non-work related items, then “running into each other” out in town, then perhaps a closer relationship. By treating all of your Sailors equally and professionally, you will have no problems.
2) YOUR PERSONAL LIFE- KEEP IT PERSONAL
– As a newly reporting female division officer, you will be the subject of much interest. Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend? What do you do on the weekends? You will receive many questions of this nature. It is best to keep it as vague as possible. Obviously if you are married you may mention that, but your personal life has no role at work. Your division does not need to know about your boyfriend or the bars you go to on the weekends.
– There still is a double standard in our Navy, as well as society. A male division officer may speak of his latest conquest and receive high-fives and admiration, whereas a female division officer can say the same thing and likely receive negative feedback as well as a reputation stain. The Navy is working hard to change this but it still remains in many areas.
– I would argue that your romantic life should be kept under wraps, from both your Sailors and the wardroom. Of course, you may make closer friends amongst the junior officers, but your department head does not need to know about the man you hung out with at Shore Club on Saturday night. Too many mentions of incidents like these and your reputation may go from “great OOD” to “she’s always out on liberty.” It’s not fair, but it is reality.
– Discretion and knowing your audience are very important. If you trust your roommates, there’s no problem discussing your relationship woes when you are all in the stateroom with the door closed. However, it’s an inappropriate discussion for the Bridge or Control. I will never forget that a newly reported male DIVO announced his virginity on the bridge during a slow mid watch. Everyone on the bridge, from the helmsman to the OOD heard it. It’s not wise for anyone to talk about some things publicly.
3) YOUR APPEARANCE, IN AND OUT OF UNIFORM.
Our appearance in uniform is governed by Navy Uniform Regulations. However, here are a few more pieces of advice to ensure that you are viewed as professional.
– Ensure that your uniforms fit properly. Many DIVOs gain weight in the first few years after college. It might be it the stress of qualifying, their metabolism has slowed, or they are no longer participating in college athletics. If you notice your uniforms are too tight, invest in a set that fits properly. There is nothing worse than seeing tight summer white pants. Alternately, if you lose a great deal of weight, get your uniforms taken in. Baggy pants also look sloppy.
– For women, especially, the crew will talk about how you look in uniform. I remember a friend of mine was approached by a shipmate and told that he liked seeing her “panty lines” in her coveralls. She was horrified and promptly bought bigger coveralls.
– Female uniforms tend to fit poorly. I would suggest that you take service uniforms to a tailor, to make sure that they fit. Jackets look better on a female if they are fitted (not skin tight!) vice being boxy and loose. It is better to buy your working uniforms looser to allow freedom of movement and the use of all of your pockets.
– Aboard the ship, there are a few more clothing considerations. Consider your PT gear: Is it skin tight? Is it so worn that it is see-through? You need appropriate PT gear when you work out on the ship. A halter top and spandex capris might not be the right choice. A thicker t-shirt and mid-thigh shorts might be more conducive to a shipboard environment.
– You will most likely have to walk to and from a shower. It may be a few steps, or down several passageways. I would suggest a knee-length, thick (terrycloth like material) robe. Ensure that it is NOT SEE-THROUGH. From personal experience, I sometimes felt uncomfortable walking around in a robe mid-day, especially if there is a longer walk to the showers. Clean PT gear may be a better choice. I strongly recommend NOT just wearing a towel (even if you are only a few steps away!), or a strapless garment that is sold for this purpose. If you do, you will potentially make people feel uncomfortable.
– You may have the opportunity for a swim call on deployment. Lucky you! You should wear a conservative one piece swim suit (TYR, Speedo, etc.) with PT gear covering you during the transit. I would also recommend keeping the shorts on (and possibly the t-shirt) on while you are swimming. Under no circumstances should you wear a two piece swimsuit, regardless of how fit you are. It will make people feel uncomfortable, as well attract unwanted attention.
– What if you forgot a swimsuit? Would a makeshift combination of sports bra and shorts suffice? Absolutely not. Wear PT gear (with a sports bra underneath).
– If you are participating in ceremonies like Crossing the Line, keep in mind that your coveralls will get destroyed. One of the second-tour Divos recommended wearing a swimsuit with shorts underneath. What a great idea! If your coveralls get ripped, you will still be modest. When it’s over you can throw them away immediately.
– If you choose to wear a skirt and pumps in your uniform, ensure you know the regulations. Skirts can be worn immediately upon entering or exiting a ship or for shore activities. Generally, for a formal reception aboard, skirts may be worn. They should not be worn for watch or formation. Pantyhose or stockings are REQUIRED when wearing a skirt. They are not optional. If you choose to purchase your own pumps, follow the heel height regulations as well as the style required (closed, round-toe).
– Uniform Regulations discuss makeup, but lack many specifics. What kind of nail polish matches skin-tone? What exactly does “complementary to your appearance” mean? I would recommend wearing a conservative amount of makeup, in distinct natural tones. If you choose to wear nail-polish, I would recommend a pale pink/brown (depending on your skin tone). Nothing ostentatious. Acrylics tend to look unprofessional.
– Fake eyelashes are allowed in uniform, but only at a normal length. I would recommend against wearing fake eyelashes in uniform. Unless you purchase very expensive ones, they look very fake. These are more suited for the weekend.
– What do you wear when you are going on liberty in port call? What about a command function, like the Christmas Party or a Hail and Farewell? You will be interacting with your Sailors and also senior officers from your ship. You should aim for an attractive, yet conservative appearance.
This is not the time to be fashion-forward– you risk being the talk of the ship for weeks to come
– For many port visits, there is already AOR guidance on what to wear. You may not be able to wear tank tops or short skirts. You may have to cover your arms. You should absolutely follow that guidance (do not wear a tube top underneath a cardigan and then take the sweater off as soon as you pass the quarterdeck!). Consider that you will have to walk down the brow as well as walk up and down ladders. High heels make this difficult, as well as some skirts/dresses. A versatile, sensible recommendation is a pair of jeans, flat shoes, and a fitted t-shirt. If it’s very hot, consider a fitted t-shirt, A-line skirt, and flat sandals/shoes. You should NOT wear any revealing clothing. A liberty visit is not the place for that. Conservative makeup is also recommended.
– For a Christmas party, the standard “little black dress” is perfect. Ensure that it is at the knee (perhaps a little higher), it does not show your cleavage or your back. A conservative sleeveless dress would be appropriate. Make sure it is not skin tight and allows freedom of movement. Wear appropriate footwear. Heels are fine as long as they are not too high or clear. Additionally, do not wear excessive makeup. This is not the time to be fashion-forward– you risk being the talk of the ship for weeks to come.
For a hail and farewell, know your venue. Is it happening at a beachside bar in the summer? A maxi dress with sandals may be appropriate. A sit down dinner at a steakhouse? You may want to wear to wear a little black dress or a sweater and slacks. Generally, men may follow the formula of khakis and a polo shirt. Women have much more latitude. If there are senior women at the command, consider asking them what they are wearing. Again, do not choose a “stand out” outfit. There is nothing wrong with looking attractive, but you must know the difference between that and being too revealing.
4) DRINKING AT A SEMI-PROFESSIONAL EVENT.
The Navy is increasingly trying to combat the glamorization of alcohol. This has led to many events going alcohol-free. However, there are still many events where alcohol is served. What is the best approach?
– Getting significantly drunk will be detrimental to your professional reputation, much less your personal health. Do not attempt to “keep up with the boys” as alcohol affects men and women differently. If you drove to the event and it’s only a couple hours (like a Hail and Farewell), consider having just water or a soda. If it’s a longer event, like a Dining-Out or Christmas Party, get a designated driver or book a hotel room for the night. Even worse than destroying your reputation, a DUI will destroy your career completely.
– Know your wardroom. Are they a partying wardroom on deployment and more sedate with the spouses around? Does your CO/XO drink? This will all come into play. Unfortunately, women will be viewed much more negatively than the men for drinking a lot. Save your partying for the weekend, with your friends. You will have the reputation of a “party girl” your entire time aboard if you act foolishly at an event.
4) WOMEN AND EMOTIONS.
Women tend to be more emotional than men. We take things more personally and physically are more likely to show our emotions. It’s life. Women also experience more emotional up and downs due to hormones, be it from their menstrual cycle or side effects of birth control. How might you cope?
– Crying on the bridge (or in CCS/CIC) is something that people are not likely to forget and will spread around the ship like wildfire. If you find yourself getting emotional, take several deep breaths, drink some water, and try to hold it back. Try to distract yourself from the cause.
– If possible, move out to a bridge wing to get some fresh air, then focus on your duties.
– If you are about to cry, try to move out to the bridge wing, or go to the head. A few minutes out of the situation may help. Consider speaking to the OOD about what caused it (CO losing his temper, OOD getting frustrated with you). Move on as quickly as possible.
– If you absolutely must cry, choose a private spot like your stateroom or the head. If you need to talk to someone about it, choose someone outside your chain of command like another DIVO. You should not dissolve in a puddle of tears to your Department Head.
– What if you cry during a one-on-one situation, such as a counseling session with your Department Head or a FITREP debrief with the Captain? If you find yourself on the verge of tears, ask if you can excuse yourself and go to the head to compose yourself. If you start crying, you will immediately make the CO or DH very uncomfortable, and they will (hopefully) offer a few minutes to get yourself together. It is better to cry in front of one person instead of an entire bridge crew.
– Women are often more emotional due to their hormones. If you have a regular menstrual cycle, you should be able to figure out when you will get more emotional, and try to combat it. Get as much sleep as possible, work out, and eat healthfully. While these will not mitigate all of the symptoms, they will help considerably. During these times, try to think before you speak more than you might usually do. You do not want to make an emotionally charged remark that you did not intend to say. This is a challenging and uniquely female issue. You may want to ask other female division officers how they handle it.
– If you find that your hormones are affecting you in a substantial way, you may want to look at the type of birth control that you are using. Some methods of birth control that have higher levels of estrogen that might make you more emotionally volatile. Others that have hormone levels change throughout the weeks. Progesterone-only birth control may be a better choice. Non-hormonal methods of birth control are available as well. Again, this is a female specific issue, so you may want to ask your fellow female division officers what experiences they have had with birth control.
5) FIRST COMES LOVE, THEN COMES MARRIAGE… AND COLOCATION, FAMILY PLANNING…
– Dating within your wardroom can be a professionally-detrimental choice. Some CO’s make rules against it, or actively discourage it. Some CO’s have no policies, as they are very difficult to legally uphold. My suggestion is to not date (or have physical relations) with anyone in your wardroom, regardless of the ship’s policy. Sailors on the ship will talk about it endlessly and it will make things more difficult for you. You will not be in the same duty section, or even on the same section of the underway watchbill, as the person you are dating. You risk being the target of perpetual gossip.
– However, sometimes it is really difficult to maintain a dating life. Especially for our FDNF ships, female division officers essentially only have the option of dating the male division officers on the other 10 ships. Of course, if you date someone on another ship, the FDNF operational tempo will prevent you from seeing them.
– What if you have beaten the odds and you have found your soul mate on your ship? What if you want to stay professional? I would recommend talking to your Department Head, and then CO. They may transfer one of you to another ship (or perhaps to the squadron if they are at the end of the tour). This is a serious situation and you should discuss this only if this is a long-term relationship leading to marriage.
– Congratulations! You are engaged! If you are engaged to another service member, PERS will take an engagement into consideration for co-location. However, I would advise choosing major fleet concentration areas so that you both may have jobs that help you professionally. Keep in mind if he is in flight school, the chances of you getting stationed in Pensacola/Corpus Christi are almost zero unless you get the rare shore duty billet located there.
– While you are planning the wedding (as a female, the planning will likely fall mostly to you), it is great to be excited and chat in your stateroom with your female DIVOs. However, you do not want to be talking endlessly about flower arrangements and seating charts during the rev watch. It’s unprofessional. Plan your wedding on your personal time. People will be excited for you, but try to keep the answer to a minimum, “Yes, we are looking forward to a June wedding at the Academy Chapel. However, we’ve got to get through NAV 1.4 before that. Speaking of, I had a question about…”
– After you get married (during a time that was “quiet” for your command), you may notice that you receive some additional comments that your married male peers do not receive. After my wedding, I was repeatedly asked if I was going to stay in the Navy, stay in as a SWO, get pregnant right away, etc. Women receive increased scrutiny when they get married. They may no longer be seen as long term career candidates. I hope this is not your experience. However, if the questions do come, I suggest you remain as vague as possible. You might be planning to resign because your husband is a pilot and has a longer commitment, or co-location has become impossible. Simply smile and say, “Thank you for your congratulations! We are certainly looking forward to the challenges ahead!” or “Well, that’s a long time off. I am currently focusing on getting my EOOW/TAO, etc.”
– Family planning is incredibly important to your career. The Navy does not expressly ban pregnancy during sea duty but encourages you to plan your family around your career. Informally, however, a female officer getting pregnant during sea duty is not ideal. While your life is not over, your career timing is forever changed and your ship will not be able to get an immediate relief for you. There are a wide variety of birth control options, some more permanent than others (such as Nexplanon or an IUD), that can help with overall planning and reduce the chances of an “accidental” pregnancy. Also keep in mind it can be difficult to get refills of birth control pills while on deployment. Your ship may carry some, but not your particular desired preference.
– When you first report to your ship, it is worth finding a female to help you navigate your first few months. She might be an older first-tour DIVO or a second tour DIVO. On my first ship, one of my roommates was a second tour DIVO and gave great guidance to the first tour female DIVOs. If there are not any senior females on your ship, maybe the ship across the pier has some. Perhaps you can contact one of the older females from your Academy company/NROTC unit who have been in the fleet a couple years. They can help you immensely through email.
– Once you have been on the ship for a while, help out the new females. They will not always know what to do, and you can keep them from embarrassing themselves, be it pulling them into a stateroom when they are crying in the wardroom, or suggesting a different outfit for a liberty port.
The Navy is an incredible career with so many options. We have had many great females lead the way for us. From following these tips and using common sense, you’ll have a great career as well! Good luck!
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Many thanks to guest posters and all outside contributors. JO Rules is an open forum for Naval professionals, so constructive input is always welcome and encouraged.