Naval Academy's female, minority mids fare worse GAO cites biases, macho traditions

May 22, 1992|By David Hess | David Hess,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Women and minorities are trailing white men at the U.S. Naval Academy, due in part to the macho traditions of the school and to lingering gender and racial biases, congressional investigators report.

In every area of the Annapolis academy's scholastic, physical training and military curriculum, female and minority students have fared worse than their white male counterparts -- including living up to the school's rigorous honor code, investigators reported.

In one of the more surprising findings of the 22-month study, the General Accounting Office said female midshipmen were cited more often than white men for rule infractions. Among the examples:

* In the 1989-90 academic year, seven of 115 freshmen women, or 6.1 percent, were convicted of more serious conduct offenses such as drunkenness, compared with nine of 1,155 freshmen men, or 0.8 percent.

* Women were more likely than men to be charged with honor offenses, such as lying, cheating and stealing, and less likely to have their cases dropped. In the 1990-1991 academic year, for example, 14 of 412 women, or 3.4 percent, were charged with honor offenses, compared with 82 of 3,980 of men, or 2.1 percent.

Although the GAO does not explicitly explain the differences, its investigators suggest that younger female midshipmen are held to tougher disciplinary standards than their male colleagues.

The higher incidence of violations among women and minorities, the GAO speculated, could be related to the greater stress they say they feel at the academy.

An academy spokesman, Cmdr. Michael John, said yesterday that the GAO report was "still in a draft stage, and we haven't seen it yet."

However, he added, "our own survey taken this year, using the same questions and methodology as GAO, indicates we're closing the gap in performance between men and women."

For instance, Commander John said, the average grade for senior women actually exceeds that of senior men at the academy. On a 4-point scale, men had an grade point average of 3.34; women averaged 3.37.

Commander John also said the academy had added several women to the faculty so that now 89 of the 602 teachers are women.

The GAO report had been requested by Sens. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., who chairs the Armed Services Committee and John Glenn, D-Ohio, and Rep. Albert G. Bustamante, D-Texas. The investigation followed reports of sexual and racial hazing during the late 1980s, including a highly publicized incident in which a female midshipman was handcuffed to a urinal and mocked by classmates.

GAO investigators emphasized that academy authorities had taken vigorous action to minimize sex and racial biases and had instituted outreach programs to help women and minorities cope with built-in stresses.

Even so, the GAO found a significant percentage of white male midshipmen believe that women don't belong at Annapolis.

Investigators also found minority midshipmen are proportionately more likely to be found in violation of the rules than whites, suggesting racial bias in enforcing standards.

"There are a number of possible factors that may be contributing to the gender and racial disparities at the academy," the GAO reported. "These include the traditional white male culture . . . of the Navy and the Naval Academy, the stressful environment of the academy, the small numbers of women and minorities there, and the influence of gender and racial stereotypes."

Last September, 4,270 midshipmen were enrolled at the academy. Women constitute 10 percent, blacks 6.5 percent, Hispanics 6.5 percent, Asians 5 percent and American Indians 1 percent. Women were first admitted to the academy in 1976.

Ironically, the GAO said, many white male midshipmen believe women receive preferential treatment because of different physical-fitness standards and lower rates of dismissal-for-cause. However, the GAO study did not bear out that perception.

Most men, for instance, believed women were either treated equally or better by honors and conduct boards. But GAO reported that "contrary to these perceptions, women were charged at higher rates than men in both the conduct and honor systems."

In a questionnaire circulated among midshipmen, investigators turned up significant opposition by some white men to having women at the academy.

One unidentified student said: "This school is here to train combat leaders, women can't go into combat, therefore they shouldn't be here."

A faculty member, also unidentified, told GAO: "The male mids have very deep-set biases against women here . . . fed by the general male atmosphere and by comments made by some vocal company officers. Unfortunately, these young men frequently don't recognize the ways in which they show these biases."

The GAO speculated that women's lower achievement levels at Annapolis could be linked to their feelings that their exclusion from combat assignments bars them from realizing their career potential.

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