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“What Do They Think of Me?”

11/8/2018-

by Logan M. Steele, Emily G. Macias, Maryana Arvan, and Jane Jorgenson

Female Officers in the US Marine Corps and Their Marines

Logan M. Steele is with Muma College of Business, University of South Florida; Emily G. Macias is in the Department of Psychology, University of South Florida; Maryana Arvan is with the Sykes College of Business, The University of Tampa; and Jane Jorgenson is in the Department of Communication, University of South Florida.

It is no secret that the inclusion of women in the Armed Forces has been met with ambivalence––a warm welcome from some, hostility from others, skepticism on one side, and enthusiasm from another. Although women have served the United States since the Revolutionary War, their representation, especially in positions of leadership, has always been low. This is true in the civilian world also, where, for example, women hold 4.8% of the CEO positions at S&P 500 companies. Although the women who aspire to these positions of leadership have an increasing number of role models, having little representation may cause aspiring leaders to doubt their chances of rising up and current leaders to question their career path.

Curious about how female leaders thought about themselves and their role in predominantly male organizations, we surveyed a sample of 122 female officers in the US Marine Corps, ranging from the rank of second lieutenant to brigadier general.

We were primarily interested in two questions: First, do female officers think their Marines perceive them as a good fit for the role of their commanding officer; and second, what impact do these thoughts have on one’s well-being and attitudes about one’s job?

Nearly 93% of officers reported that their Marines believed they as commanding officers were a good fit for their leadership role. In addition to appraising the perceptions of their subordinates, female officers were also asked in our survey how they thought of themselves in their role and the extent to which they were a good fit. To this, 98% responded affirmatively that they were the right person for the job.

After responding to these questions about perceptions of fit, officers answered questions about well-being and job attitudes. Although the vast majority of officers believed they were a good fit for their jobs and believed their subordinates thought the same, even the slightest doubt in their beliefs increased the likelihood of feeling stressed, anxious, burned out, and dissatisfied with their jobs. Negative beliefs about fit were also positively correlated with how frequently an officer thought about quitting.

Given the association between beliefs about job fit and outcomes, we explored the extent to which a supportive environment or supervisor might influence these relationships. Very little support for this idea was found, however. Although organizational support and supervisor support were beneficial in terms of being linked to lower stress, anxiety, burnout, job dissatisfaction, and turnover intentions, they did not mitigate the relationship between these outcomes and beliefs about job fit.

We also investigated whether individual differences might buffer this relationship. Again, little support for this idea was found. However, one individual difference variable, core self-evaluations, did emerge as potential explanation for why there is a link between beliefs about poor job fit and negative outcomes in the first place. Core self-evaluations refer to people’s general beliefs about their competence and self-worth. What we found in our study is that these general beliefs were much more important than how female officers thought about their fit for their jobs or how they thought about others’ perceptions of their fitness. Officers with high core self-evaluations were less stressed, anxious, burned out, and dissatisfied with their work.

Taken together, our research shows that female Marine officers generally believe they are right for their leadership roles, even in an organization where only 7.5% of their officers are women. However, just a small amount of doubt can have significant, negative consequences.

To head off these negative consequences, we urge senior leaders in the US Marines to continue to send messages that make their female officers feel supported and like they belong––for example, ensuring that all formal documentation refers to officers in gender-neutral terms. Although our research design does not allow us to make inferences about causality, our data did show that organizational support was positively related to seeing oneself as right for the job.

Equally important were beliefs that one’s commanding officer is supportive. Commanding officers can show support for the female officers that report to them by communicating that help is available when needed, demonstrating care for their well-being, and recognizing the quality of their work.

There is still much to be done to ensure that female officers in the Marines––and, more generally, female leaders in predominantly male organizations and industries––have the same opportunity to achieve their potential and demonstrate their competence. Our research indicates that one way to continue advancing this mission is to make it unambiguous that there is no conflict between one’s gender and one’s capacity for effective leadership.

For more information, contact Emily Macias, emilymacias@mail.usf.edu.