Spotlight: A Conversation With Our Leaders

Overcoming Biases to Change a Culture

Women continue to win battles on the long and winding road to gender equality.
Marcos Ommati/Diálogo | 8 March 2017

U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Martha Herb is currently the Director of the Inter-American Defense College (IADC). (Photo: Marcos Ommati/Diálogo)

U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Martha Herb is a diving, salvage, and surface warfare officer in the Explosive Ordnance Disposal community. A native of Atlanta, Georgia, she graduated from Lake Forest College with a Bachelor of Arts. In 2007 she was inducted into the Women Diver’s Hall of Fame and in 2010 was selected for flag officer rank. As Director of IADC, Rear Adm. Herb is bringing her “toughness” to influence changes in a traditionally male-oriented institution. Just as an example, she is only the second female officer to head the IADC since its inception in 1962. To talk about the challenges women in the military still face, Diálogo visited Rear Adm. Herb in her office at the IADC, in Fort Lesley J. McNair, Washington D.C.

Diálogo: Out of the 64 students attending IADC, only six are women. Does that bother you?

U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Martha Herb: Yes. Getting more female students has been my number one priority. When I first got here [Rear Adm. Herb is serving her second two-year term at IADC], I added it to the IADC recruiting letter, and when I visit countries, I specifically talk to senior military leaders and officials about sending women to IADC.

Diálogo: How do you try to convince these countries to send more female students to IADC?

Rear Adm. Herb: Since each nation is at a different point in time in terms of their inclusion of women in the armed forces, I say to people that “I recognize you might not have senior women in your military yet but don't think that you can’t send women to college. You have civilians serving in your government offices, you have police, and you have women with many different official skill sets within the government. You need to give these women the IADC opportunity.” To be effective in our mission, it is very important for the senior students here at IADC to have experience with women. Why? Simply stated, in eight or 10 years, some of the IADC students will become the next four-star or first general officer, and you want them to be prepared to advocate for advancing women’s issues in the military.

Diálogo: The United States has come a long way in this matter, but senior military personnel in the country still recognize there is a lot to be done. How do you see this issue – women in the military – in the countries you work with in Central and South America, and the Caribbean?

Rear Adm. Herb: It varies by country. Sometimes issues about women’s inclusion are driven by antiquated policies that make achieving the objective of female inclusion difficult. For example, a country, or even an organization, might establish an overarching objective of 50 percent female inclusion, but then the policies at the various levels throughout the country or organization might counteract the objective of inclusion. It takes a while to solve it. It is not only a policy issue, but female inclusion also involves changing a culture. Culture change is very slow, and some say it takes a generation or two! Policy and culture are two issues that make inclusion difficult. There are also biases, and everybody has them. I have biases, you have biases. It takes a while to recognize your own biases, overcome them, and change them. And that is why it takes so long to change a culture. On a more practical level, it is important to set standards. Set the standard and then expect everyone to achieve the standard. When there are consistent standards, everybody is eligible, everybody is expected to get the job done, and at that point, it does not matter if you are a male or a female. It is not relevant to the standard.

Diálogo: Do you think ethnicity plays a role in the U.S. military, in addition to gender? If she is a Latina, does that make her life harder?

Rear Adm. Herb: That is a great question. I would imagine, yes. But it is probably also related to someone’s upbringing – their cultural references, the way you were raised within your family, the value sets upheld in the family, and then your day-to-day behavior. I had a wonderful resource manager at IADC who was high-speed, really accomplishing great things and she will probably make general someday. She is Latina. She has been very, very successful, but I think she has worked at it. She’s been driven to stay true to herself and her culture while being the utmost professional in the military. Regardless of nationality, most women feel like others expect them to give 120 percent before it will be considered good enough.

Diálogo: Do you think women still have to work harder than men, especially in the military?

Rear Adm. Herb: Absolutely. And part of it is that we, as women, can be our own worst advocate – demanding more of ourselves than others expect from us. I think women, for the most part, are still less than 25 percent of the population [in the U.S. military] so we are still pioneers striving to be successful in a predominantly man’s world. There are just not a lot of us. You can go into a meeting and quite frequently, you will be the only woman there. As pioneers, sometimes we set standards for ourselves that for the most part are very, very high. We don’t cut ourselves much slack, and sometimes people are less harsh on us than we are on ourselves.

Diálogo: Was it harder for you when you were a young officer, or after you became a general officer?

Rear Adm. Herb: I think when I was a flag officer. When I was younger and new in the diving field, most of my fellow divers were very open about their thoughts regarding women divers… but then again, it was 1979! As a new flag officer, it was about proving that you were selected for your capability, leadership, and professionalism, and not because you were a woman. And I have to add a caveat to that. It is an honor and a privilege to be selected for this position. I have learned so much from other generals and admirals. The other caveat is related to my background in counseling and psychology. I’m a watcher - I watch things, I watch dynamics, I watch people. I weigh facts in conjunction with what I see in people. Sometimes, this is not the norm or process for making decisions.

Diálogo: When do you think we will be able to speak about someone’s career without putting the word “female” before it?

Rear Adm. Herb: I think we have improved immensely in that area. We are getting there.

Diálogo: Does the fact that we are talking about this in an interview prove we are not there yet?

Rear Adm. Herb: That’s true. I have been in the military long enough to say I have witnessed improvement. It is light-years from where we were back in 1979. So, I appreciate that the service has given me this tremendous opportunity to serve, have adventures, have fun, and do neat and different things. A lot of it was just timing and my little piece of history, so I think acceptance of women has changed enormously. Is that good enough? No. The acceptance of women is still driven by extraordinary women. Even today, many of the women in the military and police have a certain kind of personality – they work very hard, they are determined, they don't give up, they are agile, they are adaptable – and these are the women who continue to advance. Yet, behind closed doors, these same women share their frustrations and disappointments on the bias that still exists.

Diálogo: What is your take on women in the combat zone?

Rear Adm. Herb: If they can do the job, let them do the job. It comes back to the standard. Some women are very talented. I was lucky because I was a very gifted athlete. So, by the time I entered the Navy to become a Navy diver, doing a lot of physical requirements and activities was no big deal. If my physical abilities are the gift God has given me, then let me use them. And I think that needs to be the standard across the board. Here is the standard, and here is what you need to be able to do to accomplish the mission. If you can meet the standard, then you can do the mission. However, since many men and women will meet the standard, it will be important to avoid “racking and stacking” qualified candidates based on the best to the worst. In the long run, in order to have female inclusion, you might need to have some quotas.

Diálogo: Do you believe in the quota system?

Rear Adm. Herb: No. First, everyone meets the standard. And then you have an entire group of people who have met the standard. For example, we have 100 people who meet the standard and we can only accept 75. And it just so happens that, because the standards were very high, the last 25 of the 100 who met the standard happened to be women. The net result: no women are accepted year, after year, after year. Is it because they couldn’t meet the requirement? Or are you saying that you have to meet the requirement, and you have to compete with the best to earn the top spots? It is an issue, but combat experiences have demonstrated the mission value of both genders participating in the mission.

Diálogo: But the standards are made by men, for men, right? Should you keep it as is? Or should women have to step it up somehow?

Rear Adm. Herb: Exactly, exactly. It really does not matter if the standard makes sense for the mission. And when you have women from athletic backgrounds, they already have all the physical training through their years as athletes. For example, I was a nationally ranked swimmer before I came into the military. When somebody told me, “You have to do pull-ups,” it was okay, [I had] no problem. But it wasn’t because I trained to meet the standard, it was because of all the years swimming back and forth in a pool that made it a lot easier for me.

Diálogo: But people say, for instance, if you put Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams on the same tennis court — both great athletes as we know — Djokovic will win in the end, not because he is better than Serena, but because of the physicality of the game.

Rear Adm. Herb: And I don’t have a problem with that. Men and women are different. If you can’t figure that out, then you need to get your eyes checked.

Diálogo: How do you accommodate the needs of a woman based on the fact that they are clearly different from men? How do you address that? Let’s say, bathrooms in a submarine, for example.

Rear Adm. Herb: When I first came into the military, there were rarely women’s bathrooms in many commands I went to because they didn’t have women. We had a little sign with ‘women’ on one side, and ‘men’ on the other, and you just flipped it over. When I went to dive school we didn’t really have a women’s locker room. There was a small bathroom with some lockers and two stalls with two women in the space at the same time. Needless to say, it could be challenging. For example, we were in the scuba phase of dive school, and we would get out of the water in a wetsuit, run up to the building — not near the water, of course. Then we would have to get out of our wetsuit, get cleaned up, get in our uniform, and get to class. You had maybe 10 minutes. It’s difficult to get out of a wetsuit in a small space with another woman trying to do the same thing, and then both of you getting time enough to take a shower. But, that is what we had at the time. And it was about passing dive school, not about the difficult environment. In a way, trials like that make you stronger and more resilient. Ultimately, you have to decide whether you are going to push beyond some of the difficulties. For me, I just wanted to be a Navy Deep Sea Diver.

Diálogo: And how about pregnancy and family issues that are traditionally handled by women, especially in Latin America? How do you deal with that?

Rear Adm. Herb: That is a problem. But the culture has to overcome that. Does she have a husband at home? The child is sick. Guess what? Dad, do your job! Fifty percent of that kid is yours. A dad shouldn’t wash his hands off and say ‘I don’t have to do anything.’ A couple has to figure it out, and they both have to participate. I was fortunate enough that when my husband and I decided to have children, I actually called my detailer and said, “Hey, we want to start a family,” and he said, “You are on shore duty, not a problem.” By the time I had the baby, my term of service on active duty was complete. But I transitioned to the Reserves because it provided me a way to do both – stay relevant in the military and still serve my country, while at the same time being home with my children. And then as my children got older, I had the opportunity to serve more days than the typical one weekend a month/two weeks a year. That is how my husband and I solved it. There are also women doing it all, while still maintaining their time on active duty: having kids, serving, all while on ships at sea. These women are amazing. The bottom line becomes what your family is comfortable with supporting.

Diálogo: How difficult is it for a woman to deal with sexual harassment in the military?

Rear Adm. Herb: It’s a very difficult thing to address. Even here, because as a woman you are torn with “I don’t want to create chaos so I will keep my mouth shut and endure.” But eventually, you get worn out. You just say, “I am done enduring, and will speak up.” Any leader, whether it is a male or a female, needs to pay attention to interactions between people. It’s not just what you are told, but also what you see. You need to watch and listen. That gets back to what I said earlier, I watch people. Because watching people will tell you more of what is going on in your command, than what is communicated.

Diálogo: March 8th is International Women’s Day. Are you in favor of it, or against it?

Rear Adm. Herb: We have days dedicated to everyone. We have a Mother’s Day, a Father’s Day. Why not a Women’s Day?

Diálogo: But you don’t have a Man’s Day…

Rear Adm. Herb: I know, but it’s Man’s Day every day! In all seriousness — and this will show my ignorance — the first Women’s Day I celebrated was in Afghanistan, and it was a very important Women’s Day because I can think of no better place to celebrate Women’s Day than in a culture where they have no opportunity, where they endure such hardship and put up with so much. So, I celebrated it with great reverence there. Now, on Women’s Day at IADC we have a gender conference, and to me it’s a way that I encourage the conversation in the hemisphere…Why not give women opportunities, why not find ways to say we will level the playing field? And then, those women who want to be in the military, or the police, or whatever profession, and they have the right personality, and the right physicality, by golly, let the women have the opportunity!

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