Women Unsure If Military Will Let Them Be All They Can Be : Gender: Some complain they face higher hurdles than males for top jobs, such as fighter pilots. But critics fear feminist agenda is lowering standards.


Her F-16 score sheet said one thing: Maj. Jacquelyn S. Parker qualified for the next level of combat fighter training. Her male commanders said another.

Time after time, word came down to Parker from the higher-ups: Go back and do it over again.

“They’d say, ‘You’re just a little short of where you need to be,’ ” Parker recalled of her supervisors at the New York Air National Guard’s 174th Fighter Wing in Syracuse--known as “The Boys from Syracuse.”

“I’d say, ‘What is it?’ And they’d say, ‘Do you want us to lower our standards?’ It went on like this for eight months.”


Less than six months after Parker’s bid for front-line duty, she now works for a software company in Chicago, victim of what some call a persistent atmosphere of gender bias and sexual harassment in the military.

As the memory of Tailhook fades, the military is coping with a new problem: The view among some in the military that the effort to eradicate sexual harassment is pushing women into places where they don’t belong. Increasingly, it seems that as Jackie Parker and other women complain that they face higher hurdles than male counterparts, others in the military charge that the Pentagon is lowering its standards to meet a feminist agenda.

The Pentagon’s top personnel official, Undersecretary of Defense Edwin Dorn, rejects the favoritism charge.

“Nobody’s going to put somebody in a $50-million airplane if he or she is not ready to handle it,” Dorn said. “No commander is going to risk his or her career or the lives of the people in their unit merely to satisfy some symbolic goal.”

As to whether well-qualified women will be promoted over less qualified men, “the answer is yes,” Dorn said.

Eventually, getting women into higher-ranking positions will ease rather than increase tension between the sexes, Dorn predicted.

“Some of our soldiers and sailors are coming from backgrounds that have more than a hint of misogyny,” Dorn said. “They have to learn to deal with women as equals, not as sex objects, not as inferiors.” He said that with training, “it doesn’t take the average soldier a long time to make that adjustment.”

The New York Air National Guard made clear where it stands recently when Maj. Gen. John H. Fenimore, adjutant general of New York, removed Parker’s superior from command, ordered others in the 174th disciplined and invited Parker to return to F-16 fighter training.

While Parker ponders the offer, others like her live in a military where the issue between men and women goes beyond gender and ego. As the percentage of women in the shrinking military increases, competition for plum jobs, such as fighter pilot, becomes keener.

Women make up 12.5% of the military today, up from 10.5% two years ago.

“As the services have come down in size, as missions have changed, there’s a lot of change going on, and change often tends to be threatening,” said former Navy Capt. Carolyn Prevatte, who serves on the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, a group that advises the Pentagon on gender issues.

Adding to the problem is lingering resentment from highly publicized cases such as the death of Navy Lt. Kara Hultgreen and the scuttled promotion of Adm. Stanley Arthur.

* Hultgreen died in an aborted carrier landing last year after an engine on her F-14 malfunctioned. The Navy said she was a fully qualified fighter pilot. But a rumor campaign, waged by anonymous callers to talk radio programs, alleged that she had gained her wings through favorable treatment.

* Many, including women, reacted with chagrin when the Navy pulled Arthur’s promotion to Pacific commander last year after a senator questioned his performance overseeing a sexual harassment investigation. Critics charged that the popular and highly decorated combat pilot had been the victim of a climate of political correctness.

* Gen. Charles Krulak, the newly named Marine Corps commandant, ruffled feathers in August when he said he opposed placing women in ground combat “because I don’t think they can do it.”

* And, in another high-profile case, the highest-ranking Navy officer to face court-martial since World War II was acquitted of sexual harassment last month. The accused, Capt. Everett L. Greene, said two subordinates had mistaken friendly and supportive cards and phone calls as improper advances.

These and other cases came after the 1991 Tailhook scandal, when dozens of women complained that they were groped and fondled at an alcohol-soaked Las Vegas convention of naval aviators.

Since then, the military leadership has worked to improve processing of sexual harassment complaints, seeking to rid the system of the retaliation that had prevented many victims from coming forward.

Defense Department statistics show a steady increase both in the number of harassment complaints and in the proportion of those complaints that are substantiated. But officials say the increase reflects greater awareness of the issue and new, more stringent rules.

And a recent report to Defense Secretary William Perry and research conducted by the Navy indicate a decline in some of the worst harassment cases--those involving physical contact, intimidation and requests for sexual favors.

The 1993 directive by then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin opening up some combat posts to women set the stage for what advocates for women see as the bigger emerging issue--combat aviation.

Navy Cmdr. Trish Beckman, a 25-year veteran who has flown as a navigator in several combat aircraft, said the problem is far from eradicated.

“I have seen every method used to try to force us out of aviation, up to and including rape,” said Beckman, the outgoing president of Women Military Aviators, an association of American and foreign female military pilots.

Parker encountered nothing as drastic as rape. And in her view, 10% of commanders oppose women combat pilots, 10% support them, and the rest “will go either way” depending on guidance from the top.