MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
As Women's History Month comes to a close, we're going to take a closer look at a place where women say they are still fighting to be seen as equal in the most basic ways, even as they are fighting for their country. We are talking about the U.S. Marine Corps. It is the only branch of the military that continues to train male and female enlisted members separately.
Our next guest says that is not just unnecessary, but the practice bakes in an attitude of disrespect for women's abilities from the beginning of their careers, and she says she was fired for proving that's true. We're talking about Lieutenant Colonel Kate Germano. She was leading the Marine Corps's all-female 4th Recruit Training Battalion at Parris Island, S.C., when she was fired in 2015. Her commander said she was fired for a leadership style that was too mean, too demanding and too abrasive.
In her new book titled "Fight Like A Girl: The Truth Behind How Female Marines Are Trained," Kate Germano with journalist and Army veteran Kelly Kennedy gives her side of the story. When I talked to them, Kate Germano began by describing the environment she says she encountered when she arrived at Parris Island.
KATE GERMANO: The compound where the Marines were trained, the female recruits were trained, was so separate from anywhere else on the base that it had created this sort of lax leadership by the senior men on the depot. We had staff shortages that were affecting stress levels, that were affecting recruits being abused. We had all kinds of sort of run amok discipline issues that weren't being dealt with the right way. And so that was of great concern to the Marines there. And it was just that there was an overall sort of atmosphere of neglect.
MARTIN: And you were able to fix that in short order. Like, the whole question of marksmanship, for example - that women went from a 67 percent qualification rate at the rifle range to 92 percent, a rate that rivalled that of the men. And, in fact, the men's qualification rate went up. Why do you think that is?
GERMANO: Well, I can tell you that, for decades, the women had underperformed because there were lower expectations for what they could achieve. And I don't want to claim responsibility or kudos for it. My Marines helped put a plan together to change what the female recruits were doing and how they were performing. And so we just put a plan together to have discipline and hold them to higher standards and make sure that at every opportunity, we were training and coaching rather than simply screaming at recruits for 13 full weeks of boot camp.
MARTIN: And then you got fired.
GERMANO: And then I got fired.
MARTIN: One of the things that you say in the book, though, is that the real issue was that they didn't want you to succeed. And when you did succeed, that challenged their expectations. What you say in the book is that no matter how we work to overcome decades of apathy and low standards for performance within my battalion, there were men at the highest levels of command on the recruit depot who expected, even wanted the women to fail because they didn't want to see women fully integrated into the corps. And there were women who fell so fully in line with the status quo that it never occurred to them to see what the female recruits could achieve. But why would they want the women to fail, though?
GERMANO: Well, you have to keep in mind that this was right at the same time that the Marine Corps was conducting their integrated task force experiment. And that task force experiment was designed to show whether women could perform in the roles that were going to be opened up. We knew that the secretary of defense was going to open up the roles of ground combat jobs and units to women. We knew it was coming down the pike.
But the Marine Corps was doing this study, and it was performed in a way that would allow the Marine Corps then to come back and ask for a waiver to deny women those opportunities. And our results at Parris Island, what we were proving on the rifle range, what we were proving with physical fitness conflicted directly with that narrative.
MARTIN: Kelly, I want to turn to you on this because, first of all, I want to say that you are an Army veteran yourself, but in addition to that, you're also a longtime military journalist. I'm not asking you to kind of validate what the lieutenant colonel is saying, but I am asking you to sort of amplify it, if you could. Is this a Marine-specific problem? Is this a U.S. military service problem? You know, how do you see it?
KELLY KENNEDY: No, I don't believe it's the Marine-specific or military-specific at all. There were things that she said about, you know, holding women to higher standards that made me think, gosh. I don't know if I could have met those standards. And then the more I listened to her, the more I was, like, oh, yeah. I could have. But I think that applies everywhere. I don't think that's just the military or the Marine Corps.
MARTIN: Kelly, what about you? I mean, as a person who's been out of the service longer than the lieutenant colonel has, what connection do you see to other things that are in the news in the way women are trying to kind of move through the workplace? Do you see those connections? And what are they?
KENNEDY: I do. The chapter I'm most proud of for Kate is the chapter where she says, you know, there were women who served under me who didn't feel they could come to me, who didn't feel they could trust me. And she was striving so hard to be one of the guys that she didn't relate to the women because women were other. And instead of being able to reach back and mentor and lift people up - this happened when I was in the military, it obviously happened in Kate's career - but I think it happens in all careers where you're struggling so hard to be top that you're afraid to help others.
MARTIN: You do, Lieutenant Colonel, raise some - not just necessarily in the book but also in the pieces that you have written recently - you've raised some serious questions about the leadership of General Kelly...
MARTIN: ...Who's currently serving as the White House chief of staff. And what are those concerns?
GERMANO: Well, I mean, I think I share concerns about most of the senior men in the highest positions in the Marine Corps. And that concern is that you're shaping policies that affect women and men and transgender military people, and you're shaping those policies based on your own biases without even really knowing it. I don't think these men are evil by any measure. I just don't think they're aware that the way that they were raised and their religion and, you know, anything that has to do with how they see appropriate roles for women - that that's coming out in policy, and that affects our national defense. And that's why it's so significant to me.
MARTIN: Well, what do you think is going to change it?
GERMANO: It's going to take two things. First and foremost, there needs to be pressure from people on the outside - people who can tell their congressmen and women why this is such an important issue. But there also really needs to be a greater degree of scrutiny on why the percentage of women in the Marine Corps is so small. Because at less than 9 percent of the total force, women are never going to be able to rise to the positions of authority and power that we need to impact policy. So I think it's going to take those two things to really change the way gender is viewed in the Marine Corps and make it more safe for women to serve.
MARTIN: That was retired Lieutenant Colonel Kate Germano and Kelly Kennedy. She's also an Army veteran. They are co-authors of the new book, "Fight Like A Girl: The Truth Behind How Female Marines Are Trained." They were kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C. Lieutenant Colonel Germano, Kelly Kennedy, can I - I understand it's controversial, but if I may, thank you both for your service.
GERMANO: Thank you so much.
KENNEDY: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOUBAB KREWE'S "SALUT")
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