At Academy: 'That was then this is now' Reforms attempt to leave sex harassment in Navy's wake

November 15, 1992|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

A caption in Sunday's editions of The Sun misidentifie Bancroft Hall at the Naval Academy.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Two women in tailored black uniforms are sunk in a couch under the ornate, vaulted ceiling of the Naval Academy's Bancroft Hall talking about double standards and their careers.

Footsteps echo around Midshipmen Karin Rao and Morgen Paul as six others stop by to discuss a conference on women's and minority issues at the Air Force Academy this weekend. They're eager to prepare for all the sessions save one. Sexual harassment. Nobody wants to touch it.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

After more than three years of focusing on the treatment of women at the Naval Academy, midshipmen say they are ready to move on. They want to discuss leadership training and women in combat.

"That was then; this is now," is the mantra among the brigade of 4,300 midshipmen.

"Then" was the fall of 1989, when Gwen Dreyer, a 19-year-old sophomore from Encinitas, Calif., was dragged from her dorm room and handcuffed to a urinal as male midshipmen jeered and took photographs.

It was a watershed moment for the prestigious military college, ,, prompting four separate investigations into sexual harassment and hazing rituals.

Academy officials responded with 112 initiatives to improve the lot of women. They instituted educational seminars and an ombudsman to handle complaints and sternly warned students against offensive jokes, obscene marching chants, and posters of nude women, once common at the academy.

Senior Navy leaders, embarrassed by a second scandal of harassment at a Navy aviators convention, reinforced the message during a daylong seminar in August that the tradition of the hard-drinking, skirt-chasing sailor would no longer be tolerated.

Midshipmen say the measures have heightened awareness of discrimination, reduced female dropout rates slightly and improved the atmosphere for women.

Even though male and female midshipmen considered the attack on Ms. Dreyer a harmless Army-Navy Week prank and resented her whistle-blowing, they now look back on the episode as a turning point.

"The treatment of women has changed a lot," said Ms. Rao, a 21-year-old senior who belongs to the Women Midshipmen Study Group, which was reconvened after Ms. Dreyer resigned. "Now that I think back on it, in a way, I'm glad it happened. It made us step back and look at traditions."

Students and professors insist much has changed and say they're weary of their school being stereotyped as a bastion of misogyny.

Still, they acknowledge that what some see as a sanctioned double standard has not been altered.

Women face job discrimination because they're excluded from combat. No matter how successful they are at the Naval Academy, women are kept on the periphery, barred because of their sex from high-status warships and combat planes, unable to get the battle experience that hastens promotion.

Proponents of relaxing the ban on women in combat say it fosters a second-class citizenship and leads to sexual harassment.

Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women's Law Center in Washington, said that only 11 percent of positions throughout the military preclude the possibility of combat and are therefore open to women. This keeps women to a minority labeled in the services as "voyeurs" instead of "warriors," she said.

It leads to an attitude, "if you can't fight, you're not a serious member of this establishment," said the attorney, who co-wrote two white papers recently on sexual harassment and combat exclusion.

U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo., fretted about male cadets at the Air Force Academy in Colorado who complained that women were treated better but opposed opening up more jobs to them. "I'm just horrified that this is still an issue," said Ms. Schroeder, an outspoken critic of the Pentagon policy.

Report due tomorrow

A 15-member presidential commission is expected to recommend in a report tomorrow that women be allowed to fly warplanes and serve on combat ships.

But in a sharply divided vote, the Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces decided that women should continue to be excluded from infantry, armor and artillery service.

Ms. Schroeder criticized the commission as hand-picked by the Republican administration and said she hopes the report "will be thrown out" by President-elect Clinton.

The integration of women at the Naval Academy has improved since the first group was admitted in 1976. Two of the three brigade commanders who have led the midshipmen in recent years have been women.

But women still make up only a tiny 11 percent of the brigade, despite a finding in a 1990 report that "a true coeducational environment is difficult to achieve where one sex constitutes less than 40 percent of the student body."

The problem is exacerbated by a tendency for women to drop out at higher rates than men, though the trend has slowed recently.

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