By MICHAEL FRETT
After 38 years of service within the Vermont Army National Guard, retired Chief Warrant Officer and Milton-based Empowering Gender Opportunities founder Doris Sumner knows what sexism looks like in the military.
It was something she saw as the Guard’s Equal Opportunity and Diversity Manager, an office she held for 13 years and received national recognition for. It was something she saw in the decades of service before then, something she remembers experiencing personally soon after enlisting.
It’s the experiences outside of that rigid, historically male-dominated hierarchy that Sumner hopes to understand better and hopes to levy that Guard experience against.
As Sumner described both in person and on her website www.ItsAllAboutEGO.com, sexism can very much exist in the workplace, manifesting from the smallest ways – using “hey guys” as opposed to “hey everyone” – to tangible cases of sexual harassment.
Sumner brought an article from Vox with her to her interview with the Independent. The article, penned by Vox’s Tara Golshan, included the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EOOC)’s conclusion that “anywhere from 25 percent to 85 percent of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.”
That same article also cites an estimation from EEOC that 75 percent of all workplace harassment incidents go unreported, and that 75 percent of harassment victims experience retaliation after reporting their harassment.
Sumner added that gender bias can be reversed in some professional settings, like in the largely woman-dominated nursing field, where it might be women who have to accommodate for the few male nurses present. “It can be the same for the men, too,” she said.
Sumner initially served in the Army before joining the Vermont National Guard in 1987. She worked full time in the guard until 2019, retiring as a Chief Warrant Officer with national recognition for her work as the Vermont National Guard’s Equal Opportunity and Diversity Manager.
In the military, the U.S.’s largest employer and historically limited almost exclusively to men, gender gaps run deeper than in the civilian world.
Despite the military’s gradual opening up to women, command positions remain largely concentrated among males, and the number of women in service is only a small fraction of the overall population of the U.S. military.
In 2015, a Pew Research Center survey of the U.S. military revealed that, from 1.3 million active duty service members, only 15 percent were women. By contrast, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 51 percent of the U.S. population is female.
When Sumner first enlisted in the 1980s, that gap was wider, with women representing just over 10 percent of active duty members of the military.
The National Guard is usually measured separately from active duty, though the demographics follow similar trends; according to 2016 statistics cited by the U.S. Army, 17 percent of those serving in the National Guard nationally were women.
With the military’s culture largely dictated by its masculine supermajority, Sumner said that culture – while often unconscious – could manifest in toxic ways.
In her official role as the Vermont National Guard’s Equal Opportunity and Diversity Manager, she’s heard stories from other women in the Guard of men whispering behind women’s ears, of commanding officers taking advantage of subordinate women.
She has her own story too, from a night soon after her enlistment when a male senior took advantage of his codified seniority. Sumner said what happened was consensual but cites it as an example of where the masculine culture behind the military’s hierarchy allowed a male superior to take advantage of a female subordinate.
“That was the 1980s. You can find a similar story in 2018,” Sumner said. “It is someone taking advantage of a position of power… It’s everywhere, and it’s very underreported.”
Part of Sumner’s job in the military was documenting what was reported, including the Guard’s Annual Gender Report, which, when issued earlier this year in the wake of a VTDigger exposé on sexism and chauvinism in the Vermont Air National Guard, was blunt about sexism in the Guard’s culture.
According to Sumner, however, it’s best to address that sexism head-on, something she was working on even before gender issues in the Guard made headlines last year. Sexism, Sumner said, was the largest barrier to shrinking the military’s gender gap. “It’s not babies, it’s not combat arms, it’s not because women don’t want to go to war,” Sumner said. “It’s sexism.”
And addressing sexism in the military, Sumner said, could spill over into the rest of society. “I believe the military should change sexism in our country, because I believe the military is the cultural setting,” Sumner said. “If we can’t combat sexism in the military, we can’t combat sexism in the United States of America.”
In her role as the Vermont Guard’s diversity manager, Sumner helped organize workshops and programs for challenging sexism and empowering women in the military. Both in person and in a timeline she’s shared online, Sumner cites a deep background of programming relative to that same question.
Her work culminated in a presentation – “Combatting the Sexism We Tolerate” – to the Defense Advisory Council for Women in Service, ultimately earning her national recognition from the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel, before each of the nation’s adjutant generals.
That was in 2018, just before the exposé on sexism in the Vermont Air National Guard.
In the immediate fallout, Sumner encouraged the Vermont Guard to proactively address the sexism highlighted in those articles, but lamented what she saw as the Guard instead being more defensive.
Sumner has since retired from the military and founded EGO to help companies address workplace gender-bias and sexism.
While EGO’s a new company, Sumner’s optimistic.
“I am not in EGO to make money. I’m in EGO to change minds,” Sumner said. “I didn’t while in uniform, but maybe I can through EGO.”