WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said more women should be serving in the Navy and Marine Corps, and plans to take action to boost their presence in those military branches.
“We don’t have enough women in either the Navy or the Marine Corps,” Mabus told the Reuters Aerospace and Defense Summit on Wednesday as he kicked off a drive to expand the number of women in the Navy.
Women represent 18 percent of the Navy and 8 percent of the Marine Corps, Mabus said.
“I don’t know exactly what the goal ought to be, but I know those are too low,” he said.
About 200,000 women serve in the entire active duty military, or about 15 percent of that force, according to Navy Lieutenant Commander Nate Christensen. More than 280,000 women have deployed in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past decade, Christensen said.
The military services have until January 2016 to assess which jobs are open to women after a January 2013 decision by then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to allow women to serve in combat, Christensen said.
About 80,000 of an estimated 250,000 additional jobs have already been opened to women as result of those reviews.
Indeed, some of the Pentagon’s biggest programs also have fewer women than the average across the force.
Women account for 12 percent of the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Program office, but some hold very senior jobs, said spokesman Joe DellaVedova. For instance, the civilian deputy program director, Steffanie Easter, has the civilian rank equivalent to the three-star general who runs the program.
Mabus, a former Mississippi governor who has served as Navy secretary since 2009, cited the importance of a diverse force as the reason for bringing more women to the service.
“The more diverse input you have into something, the better the organization is,” Mabus said.
The Navy is developing measures it can take on its own and some that would need congressional approval, Mabus said.
For example, Mabus pointed to a pilot program that allows service members to take up to three years off without any harm to their careers, and said it might boost the retention of women.
He said the Navy would ask Congress to make the program permanent since people still fear it could be withdrawn.
“We’re looking at how ... we can retain people past 4 years or 8 years, how we can be more flexible in terms of how we manage people,” Mabus said. “So that if you need to take time off, that your career will not be harmed.”
Vice Admiral Bill Moran, chief of naval personnel, recently said the Navy was re-evaluating its recruiting, training and career management programs, including possible changes to make the current promotion system more flexible.
Mabus said the Navy was also looking more skeptically at uniforms that distinguish men from women.
“We’re not moving to put women in men’s uniforms. We’re moving to the term ‘uniform’,” he said. “We don’t want to segregate women or anybody else in any way in the military.”
Mabus has made promoting diversity a hallmark of his tenure as secretary, which included the 2011 christening of a Navy resupply ship after civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
He also cited the establishment of Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps programs at Arizona State University and Rutgers University in New Jersey, which he described as “two of the most diverse campuses in our country.”
“The force that protects a democracy should reflect the population that it protects much more than we do today,” he added.
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Reporting by Andrea Shalal and Lewis Krauskopf in Washington. Editing by Andre Grenon