Women in the Navy
July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:44 PM
"When Dorothy Mahieu speaks, men listen. When she gives orders, they obey.One of the reasons Mahieu holds such sway with the opposite sex is because she's spent more than two decades earning it. Another is that she's a master chief petty officer in the Navy - the highest rank an enlisted sailor can attain - as well as Command Master Chief for EA-6B Prowler squadron VAQ-138 at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.Mahieu's role as a leading lady in the Navy is one shared by an increasing number of women these days. According to the Navy Office of Information, some 51,800 women now wear Navy blue or khaki, comprising more than 13 percent of the ranks. And where they were once consigned strictly to nursing or administrative billets, women now command Navy war ships and pilot fighter jets. But climbing up through the ranks in the once male-only sea service hasn't been all sugar and spice for some women. Acceptance, especially on war ships, has come gradually - and in some cases grudgingly or not at all. Some women in the Navy have encountered sexism, resentment and limited career opportunities.Yet for many women, the Navy has provided the same benefits that millions of men have found over the last 225 years - namely travel, education, adventure and advancement in a satisfying career. Changing AttitudesFor Mahieu, hard work and determination have paid off. She is one of only 24 women assigned to command master chief billets Navy wide. Recently returned from a six-month deployment aboard the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, the no-nonsense Mahieu acts as liaison for her squadron's 179 enlisted sailors and its officers. Both groups recognize her experience and rank and seek her counsel on a regular basis.There were times early in Mahieu's career, however, when she would have settled for simple conversation.When I got to Sub Base Bangor I was a young second class sailor and looking for all the training I could get, she said. But I had a second class that was my supervisor who would not speak to me because I was a woman. After several days of the silent treatment, Mahieu confronted her supervisor and learned that he was simply afraid to interact with her because he feared doing or saying the wrong thing.After we talked, he turned out to be a great supervisor, Mahieu said.One of the ways Mahieu countered fear or resentment was by working as long and hard as any of her male counterparts, and refusing to whine when she was handed tough jobs.I'd gut it out because I didn't want to be perceived as a complainer, she said. And after I became a leading petty officer, I always worked late. I once had another first class (petty officer) tell me, 'You make me tired just looking at you.' Betty Fischer is a first class petty officer and work space supervisor with NAS Whidbey's Aircraft Intermediate Maintenance Department. During her 13-year Navy career, Fischer has also discovered that competence and hard work go a long way toward dispelling male resistance and combatting preconceived notions.I had a young man who checked into our work center who was like, 'Oh oh, I have a female supervisor,' '' the 13-year Navy veteran said. But once he saw that I knew what I was doing and I knew my job, his opinion changed. If you do your job, you're going to be treated well.Dames at SeaOne of the last frontiers where Navy women are advancing and changing opinions is at sea.Though prohibited from serving on combat ships until 1994, some 20,000 women now serve on frontline Navy men-of-war, including frigates, destroyers, cruisers and carriers.It's an opportunity Mahieu relishes. I'll take anything that is haze grey and underway, she said. You've got to go to sea to get advanced. That's no problem now but previously it was, and I wasn't learning every aspect of my rate until I got to sea.Early in her career, Mahieu explained, she was a radioman but lacked the at-sea, hands-on experience necessary to learn every aspect of her rating.For instance, it took her seven attempts to make first class petty officer. But eight months after reporting aboard the submarine tender USS Dixon, she made the cut.Mahieu enjoyed her cruise on the Dixon, a non-combatant where women had been integral members of the crew since 1978.Such was not the case when she went aboard the USS Blue Ridge, an amphibious warfare ship that served as a sea-going command center.I thought I'd gone back in time 15 years, Mahieu said. In the (chief's) mess it was like, 'Oh no, not another woman,' and I didn't know why.The 'why,' she later discovered, had less to do with sexism than comfort.There wasn't adequate, segregated berthing for the female chiefs aboard the Blue Ridge. The male chiefs realized as more women chiefs reported aboard, they'd likely have to vacate their own berthing to accommodate the nine lady chiefs who were already crowded into a too-small compartment. Which was eventually what happened.Boss Lady When Commander Theresa Barrett joined the Navy in 1982, women were still relegated to either shore commands or duty on support ships. So Barret chose the shore-based Operations pipeline and made the most of it.I came in when women didn't really have a lot of opportunities, she said. Shortly before she transferred to a Pentagon billet two weeks ago, Barrett said one go the ways she became commanding officer to more than 280 sailors at NAS Whidbey's Naval Ocean Processing Facility (NOPF) was by always keeping a positive mental attitude.At NOPF, sailors detect, track and report on submarine activity in the Pacific Ocean.During her two-year tenure, Barrett said only a few of her male subordinates were uncomfortable having a woman commanding officer, but she never let it bother her. Once you work together and show you are competent and capable that goes away very quickly, she said. A lot has to do with the tone you set, Barrett added. For instance, I tell my junior officers, 'You might have an Oak Leaf on your collar (insignia for lieutenant commander or commander), but you still have to earn the respect of my crew.OpportunityBarrett said that like many sailors, she joined the Navy for the travel and education possibilities. She also said that her 18-year career has provided her with an abundance of both.The Navy has taken Barrett to duty stations in Alaska, Guam, Key West and England, as well as the opportunity to earn a Masters of Science Degree in Military Intelligence, and two separate tours as executive officer, or second in command, before her recent tour as CO at NOPF. I think the Navy has given women a great opportunity for leadership roles, she said. The level of responsibility the Navy gives us, we would not get elsewhere. Moreover, Barrett said unlike some jobs in the civilian world, the Navy pays women the same salary for the same work. A commander gets paid for being a commander, she noted, not for be a male or female commander.The Navy's given me opportunities I never dreamed I'd have, Barrett said. To see a lot of the world, meet a lot of interesting people and have a lot of responsibility that I wouldn't trade for anything.TradeoffsBoth Barrett and Mahieu said that by focusing on demanding careers that required them to move every few years, they had little time for long-term relationships, or children.I always put my career first, Mahieu said.Mahieu was recently married, Barrett has stayed single.It's probably harder to be a woman in the Navy in that aspect, Barrett said. To find a man confident enough to follow you around.And Mahieu said after 20 years in the Navy, she still runs into stereotyping.Recently, a newly arrived command master chief from another Prowler squadron stopped in at her squadron for a visit. He then proceeded to ask Mahieu if she knew where he could find VAQ-138's CMC.If you're looking for the CMC, you have found HER, Mahieu told him.--------------Women in the NavyA timelineIn 1811 Women first started serving in the Navy as nurses at shore-based hospitals. By 1918, The U.S. Navy Nurse Corps was established and Navy nurses worked transport duty on ships out of England, Ireland and Scotland. In 1972, women were officially assigned to Navy ships through a pilot program initiated aboard the USS Sanctuary in 1972. In 1994, the Navy notified Congress that all classes of combat ships - with the exception of submarines, and mine counter measure and hunter ships and coastal patrol boats - were open to women.In 1995, the first large deployment of women on a combatant - the aircraft carrier, USS Eisenhower - ended. More than 400 women had been assigned to the ship.Also in 1995 the Aegis destroyer USS Benfold became the first U.S. Navy ship to be built from the keel up with berthing accommodations for women.Today, more than 21,000 women serve aboard Navy ships. Berthing, or the lack thereof, still prevents the Navy from assigning more sea billets to women. But slowly that is changing.------------------Not all Navy men like female ship matesThough more and more Navy women are going to sea, the presence of women on warships has drawn mixed reactions from their male shipmates.Publicly, career-minded officers and senior enlisted men enthusiastically endorse the Navy's decision to integrate its ships. Privately however, some sailors aren't so sure. (None of the sailors criticizing the policy would go on record.)They question whether women are physically strong enough to improve or maintain combat readiness, perform damage control functions, or pull an injured sailor out of a burning compartment.They also wonder if having women on board, and the attendant sexual tension, only adds to the considerable pressures of a long deployment. A flight deck trouble-shooter aboard the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln said he had no problem serving with women, provided they pulled their weight. But he also said he resented it when women used their feminine whiles to get other guys to carry the load.And a male master chief said, other sailors resented the fact that by getting pregnant, many women were excused from long sea deployments, or sent home when they became pregnant during a deployment.Furthermore, the master chief said, when there are only males aboard a ship, there are only one set of problems. But when the genders are mixed, the problems become more complex.Quite frankly, he said of shipboard life, it's a little strange when all of sudden people people start showing up for work wearing cologne and perfume. Then there's the jealousy thing."