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Women in the Navy: Stereotypes

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Women in the Navy: Stereotypes

            There are many stereotypes in the world, some more harmful than others, and some more concentrated in one group of people than another.  For example, there seem to be more harmful stereotypes about women than there are about men, and more about minorities than about whites.  One place that is full of stereotypes is the Navy.  The stereotypical sailor is a man with a drinking problem, a girl in every port, and a wife back home who sleeps with the neighbor.  Of course, the trouble with stereotypes is that they are not always, or even nearly always, true.  The stereotypes I will explore are not isolated to general Navy stereotypes, but also specific to my field which was a combination of engineering, mechanics, and nuclear physics, all of which are male-dominated.  During my eight years in the Navy, my image and performance were both damaged by the stereotypes that women are poor mechanics, that women flirt or sleep around to get ahead, and that women shirk responsibility by getting pregnant.

The first stereotype is a common one.  Women are not strong enough to turn large valves or wrenches.  Women do not know how to use tools.  Women are not logical enough to be engineers.  There are more excellent male operators than excellent female operators.  Therefore, women are not good nuclear Machinist’s Mates.  There are a number of false premises and fallacies committed in this argument, the first being in the first premise.  The assumption is made that even the strongest female is weaker than the weakest male.  Of course, this is not true.  A male, smaller than me, tried to tell me I did not belong because I could not perform as well, physically, as the amateur bodybuilder on our watchteam.  I pointed out that he could not either, however, there are more aspects to our job than just physical strength, and I excelled in those.  In addition, there are several large valves we were required to turn, but rarely were we required to turn them without help.  One in particular almost always had two or three people turning it for speed, but when I was training for that watch, one of my officers required me to open the valve, by myself, every time, until I qualified.  The next premise is tied to the third.  Both assume that women cannot learn the things that are required for basic mechanical engineering.  When I joined the Navy, I had no idea what the tools of the trade were, let alone how to use them, but directly after boot camp, all mechanics are sent to “A” school where they teach you everything you ever have to know to be a mechanic, starting from the names of wrenches and screwdrivers.  I had the highest grade in my class of thirty with a 3.83 (out of 4.0).  Following that was a school designed to teach the engineering and nuclear side of our jobs, which I graduated in the top ten percent of our class of three hundred, again with a 3.8 average.  The idea that a woman cannot learn what is required is obviously untrue as well.  The last premise is a fallacy based on lopsided numbers.  The best ratio of men to women I ever saw through school and actual shipboard experience was thirty-five to one.  With an even percentage of over achievers and underachievers within each sex, there will still be more males in the upper echelons of ability than females simply because there are so many more men than women in this field.  None of this proves that men are more capable mechanics than women.  However, it was the reigning thought process “in the plant.”  When I got to the ship, many of the men I worked for assumed that I would not be worth training, either because I would not learn or because I would not be onboard long enough to go through the trouble, so they did not train me to do specific jobs as they did for others.  Without the specific training, I did not live up to my full potential as a maintenance person, even as I excelled as an operator.  Due to this stereotyping, I was one-sided as a mechanic rather than well-rounded.

The second stereotype is about female sailors in general. Women flirt to get ahead.  Male sailors are away from their wives and girlfriends for extended periods.  Therefore, female sailors will take advantage of superiors by sleeping around or flirting to get ahead.  This is one of the more obvious stereotypes from my time in the Navy.  At one point, I was the entirety of the divisional rumor mill, and had as many as fifteen men that I was supposedly dating or sleeping with.  Taking the argument apart, we start with the emotional aspect of being in the Navy.  It is hard to argue with, especially since nearly every unmarried woman that came to the ship wound up dating somebody from within the confines of that steel.  However, it does not mean that all women date within their division.  The other side of the argument assumes all women are willing to lower themselves and manipulate others to gain special treatment.  This was another common thought among the men I worked with.  There were several watches that had to be qualified, each one consisting of several “check-outs” followed by an exam and an oral board.  Many of the men I worked for refused to sign check-outs for me, or made them excessively difficult compared to my male counterparts’ check-outs, because they did not want to appear to be favoring a female.  Others tried to give me check-outs for nothing, but those I refused because they had reputations for being the kind of men that expect the women to flirt with them.  In all, I wound up studying more for the operation of the plant than many of the men did, which increased my operational knowledge, even if I was slower to qualify because of that extra knowledge I was required to show.

Finally, the last stereotype about women in the Navy is about the unique ability of women to get pregnant. Women who get pregnant are removed from the ship.  Several women get pregnant before long deployments.  Therefore, women get pregnant to get out of deployment. Some of the men I worked with said that if they were able to get pregnant to get out of an eight-month deployment, they would, but this is another fallacy.  There are many reasons a woman may decide to get pregnant.  I found out I was pregnant only a few weeks before our ship went on deployment, and some of the men in my division called me selfish, claiming that I only got pregnant to get out of the deployment.  The logic of taking on a lifelong responsibility to get out of a six-month responsibility is ludicrous to me, but there are women in the past who have done so, sometimes opting for an abortion after their chance of returning to the ship has passed.  My husband and I had been trying for over a year to get pregnant, and as deployment got near, I considered putting our family-building on hold because of this stereotype.  I did not want to add to any negative stereotype of the women following behind me.  However, there were many reasons, including my family’s medical history, that I wanted to start my family immediately, and I knew I would regret it if the Navy was the reason I could not have children of my own.  In the end, I decided that what my husband and I wanted was more important than what the men on the ship thought, especially since I would never speak to most of them again.

The three largest stereotypes about women in my field, that women are not good mechanics, that women flirt or sleep around to get ahead, and that women get pregnant to shirk responsibility, had an impact on both my image and my professional life.  Most of the time, I chose to actively, and sometimes aggressively, fight against the stereotype, but I had to be careful not to go against what I wanted while doing so.  I may not have been well-rounded as a mechanic, but I was a good operator, and have a beautiful baby girl to show for it all.


Ditto, P. (n.d.). How pre-existing beliefs distort logical reasoning [Video file].  Retrieved from Ashford University Intelecom Network database.  (Clip file INT_IO_13K_005)

Kemick, A. (2010, August 12).  Stereotyping has lasting negative impact.  U.S. News and World Report.  Retrieved from http://www.usnews.com/science/articles/2010/08/12/

Mosser, K. (2011).  Logic: An introduction.  Retrieved from https://content.ashford.edu/books/


11/02/2011 - Posted by | College Papers | ,

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