Reflections on Kate Germano’s Fight like a girl

I have to admit that I have some sort of weird and totally irrational fascination for the United States Marine Corps. Be it out of historical interest, passion for Vietnam war movies, the allure of the Blue Dress, I read with interest anything around and about the Corps.

So when I read this article by a former USMC Lieutenant Colonel dealing with gender issues in the Corps, I quickly bought the book by the same author, detailing her own experience trying to address gender bias in the Marines, where she attempted to improve the performance of the Marines’ female recruit training battalion by holding the recruits to higher standards than those expected before. Spoiler alert: she got results, but it didn’t end up well.

Lt. Col. Kate Germano spent about 20 years in the Marine Corps, covering a number of positions as adjutant before being appointed in 2014 to commanding officer of the 4th Recruit Training Battalion at Parris Island depot – the only Marine battalion training female recruits. The book details how Germano, realizing that the battalion was systematically underperforming compared to the other training units, attempted to address the issue, responding to abuse and harassment cases internal to the unit, but mostly by pushing and expecting the recruits to meet higher standards. As a matter of fact, lower performance of the 4th Battalion seemed to be driven by general laxness and low expectations on how a female recruit could perform, leading to a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. All of this was happening in the most segregated branch of the US armed forces, with the lowest presence of women (about 9% of the Corps are female), where recruit training was still conducted separately (the contrary happens in the Army, Navy and Air Force), where gender harassment and sexual abuse cases are most common, and that is generally permeated by a strong feeling of misogyny. The Marines United scandal was probably the most apparent and blatant instance, but less obvious cases seem to be the norm. From this point of view, Germano’s attempt was both an effort to improve the quality of the overall performance of the Corps, both an attempt to address gender issues at large and empowering women Marines, showing that they could perform as good as male Marines, and could cover similar roles (including combat and infantry roles, which is basically the core business of the USMC, and from where women are excluded)

Germano efforts seemed to pay off, with a noticeable improvement of the recruits’ performance. However, this lead to confrontations with some of her subordinates and her own Commanding Officer. Moreover, Germano affirms that her success was hitting a nerve with the top leadership of the USMC, not inclined to revert the policy of gender segregation, and which had recently supported an apparently biased (and expensive) study allegedly proving that performance of mixed units in combat situations was too poor to allow women to serve in combat roles.

These factors, according to Germano, conjured up to her removal from the post after one year as CO of 4th Battalion, by means of an internal investigation. Back then the story made headlines, as Germano and her husband (also a former USMC officer, and PR expert) denounced what had happened. A few years later, this book wants to be a more complete effort to reflect on the events and more generally on gender discrimination and gender bias in the military and beyond.

It has to be said that the book is not particularly well written, as the author and her co-author opt for a witty, tongue-in-cheek tone that not always works well with the subject matter. Perhaps this is due to an effort to make the book appealing to a wider audience, but in the long-term it results mildly irritating. Further, the choice to have Germano’s husband to write a few praising chapters for her wife results quite puzzling and doesn’t work well in the economy of the book.

This said, the book is nonetheless an interesting and stimulating reading for anyone with interests in gender issues (not necessarily in the military). I will mention here three takeaways for reflection.

  1. What makes Germano’s demise particularly surprising is the fact that her efforts were aimed not to make life particularly easier for female Marines, rather to hold them accountable against higher standards. Female recruits were pushed harder and expected to meet the same standards of male recruits, in several instances meeting the mark (in parallel, Germano tried to curb instances of abuse and harassment perpetrated by drill instructors, which in her opinion also concurred to affect negatively the performance). This lead Germano to confrontations with her subordinates, both officers and NCOs, and indirectly with her commanding officer. Generally speaking, it is an interesting case whereby empowerment was passing through equality against a standard rather than a form of affirmative action. I am not sure this is giving any lesson or is even translatable in domains other than the military – but in this specific case, historically equality against a standard has served pretty well for the de-segregation of armed forces to LBGQT people (and with the obvious differences of the case, African Americans in the US forces).
  2. After some subordinates complained about Germano, an internal investigation was opened and its results lead up to her demise. The report of the investigation is freely available (with names erased). In her book, Germano details how in her opinion, procedures were not properly followed in conducting the investigation and in the dissemination of its results. The allegations basically focus on the fact that Germano abused her authority, creating an “hostile, repressive, and unprofessional command climate”. Basically, she was accused of having a harsh commanding style, as well as having taken “blame the victim” stances in relation to sexual assault (with regard to this last point, Germano devotes an entire chapter explaining how she wanted to convey the message that, due to the ubiquity of sexual abuse in the military, it was important for recruits to take behaviours to mitigate the risk, and that this didn’t imply any blaming on the victim). Reading the investigation report, it is hard to resist the impression that at least a good deal of the charges is preposterous, especially in the context of an instituiton like the Marine Corps. In other words, Germano is accused of using a stern tone, rolling her eyes, having unrelenting standards and expectations. (In the meantime, in the battalion next door, the CO was closing two eyes on abuse cases that would led to the death of a Muslim recruit). It is an interesting exercise to try to figure out how these charges would sound if moved against a male officer. It is an interesting case of gender bias whereby women in position of leadership are still expected to conform to a different set of behaviours than men (evidence). In my own experience, I had more than one capable, straight-talk female colleague who had to resign or could not renew her contract with the only reason being that her (male) supervisor saw her as “too stubborn” and uncooperative.
  3. Finally, a more general consideration can be drawn with regard to introducing changes in risk-adverse and conservative institutions. It is hard to question the rationale behind Germano’s decision to held female recruit to higher expectations, for the sake of the overall performance of the Corps, even without taking into account considerations about women empowerment. Nevertheless, she hit the typical wall, with resistance from (some of) her subordinates, her commanding officer and the top brass of the Marines. Germano states she assumed naively that good results would speak by themselves and open the leadership’s eyes, only to be proven wrong. She further states that, had her CO had her back, her stint as 4th Battalion could have ended in full success.
    I think this is a story anyone who tried to introduce some change in an organization where change is not usually in the agenda can relate with. This can take several shapes, and I have witnessed a few in my own experience (from introducing different IT tools, streamlining reporting procedures, reviewing internal policies). I am not sure what is the lesson here – other than recognizing that, sadly, most of the times results will not speak by themselves.

 

Kate Germano, Fight like a girl, Prometheus Books, 2018

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