How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Navy

Deb Keyek-Franssen

In honor of this Veteran's Day, here's a post about women and IT in the Navy.  We are grateful to all the men and women who protect and serve our country.

We humans are rarely as consistent as we would like to believe we are. I am no exception: I protest wars whenever I have the chance (how I love a good protest!), yet salivate over military strategy and narratives (primarily Civil War and World War II, European Theater, but I could be convinced to expand my horizons). I’ve mostly come to terms with this dissonance, primarily by ignoring it, but there are times when it surfaces and causes either a self-deprecating ironic smirk or anxiety.

Recently, it spawned a self-deprecating ironic smirk. This pacifist truly, thoroughly enjoyed a day on the USS Green Bay, an amphibious ship tooling around the Pacific, just off the California coast.

As a representative of NCWIT I participated in a “Blogger’s Embark,” as part of the Navy’s Leaders to Sea program. Yup, the Navy is embracing social networking, and is reaching out to find new conduits to tell its story.

And what a story it is. I suspect that the more salient narratives the Navy hoped would be highlighted went sailing (ha!) past me: I was clearly outside the expected blogger demographic (by about a decade and at least a blog) and had a different purpose than the other, younger, hipper, better-networked co-embarkers. They were professional bloggers and professional social media gurus, whose immersion in Facebook and Twitter and their significance in the blogosphere left me agog. They clearly got the wow! of the USS Green Bay. It’s not that I didn’t. Heck, it was my first helicopter ride, and I couldn’t have been more excited about that and about landing on the deck of a ship.

But I was there on a mission of my own: to understand more about the military in general, and to see how the Colorado Coalition for Gender & IT (CCGIT) and NCWIT could improve their programs with military partners, which encourage non-traditional pathways into IT.

It would be a kindness to say that I didn’t know much about how the military works, especially for people in the enlisted ranks, and was equally ignorant about technology in the Navy. As I navigated the many so-called stairs (really, hatches and ladders) between floors, I only hit my head twice on the hatches. The one thing that really hit me on the head was that the Navy truly is a learning organization. The Master Chief Command was the personification of this characteristic. He is a career Navy officer with responsibility—we’d probably call it line authority or supervisory responsibility in a corporate setting—for every sailor (as opposed to officer) on board the ship. What intrigued me was that he knew the job of every one of them and the names of most of them, from the firefighters to the engineers to the technology specialists; he knew the tools they used; and, more important, he knew the learning pathways that took them into and upward within their respective specializations.

Navy career pathways are well-defined.  IT is a highly desirable specialization because of its portability once a sailor leaves the military, and the Navy makes extensive use of assessments to determine both aptitude and preference for specializations. Score high on a certain test and you get to go into IT. For those of us finding it difficult to recruit students into IT, the perception of a sailor “getting to go into IT” takes some “getting used to.”

Another demographic that I had to wrap my head around is this: women make up about 15% of the enlisted ranks in the Navy and are proportionally represented in the IT ranks on board the ship. The Navy has gender parity in IT. OK, so it’s a closed system parity, and not 50-50, but, still.  Women are not (proportionally) underrepresented in IT in the Navy.

Questions I'm still pondering: What messages or realities are out there that create a positive perception of IT in the Navy? To what extent do aptitude tests influence the representation of women in IT in the Navy? Can we replicate any practices or messages in the civilian world?

Deb Keyek-Franssen is the Director of Academic Technology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and serves as co-director of the Colorado Coalition for Gender and IT (CCGIT).