Recently, while listening to NPR podcast news, I heard about an “Un-Boot Camp” program for women veterans that is run by an organization called Operation Reinvent. Veteran unemployment is a real problem, and this program, which is administered by a man, purports to help women veterans make the transition from military to civilian life by offering various professional services and helping them “reconnect with their femininity.” Essentially, the podcast and related story that I found online on marketplace.org (http://www.marketplace.org/topics/economy/un-boot-camp-women-exiting-military) portrayed the program as a makeover and wardrobe update, with a goal of closing the “several percentage points” gap between male and female veteran unemployment, because the Pentagon just can’t figure it out.
My initial reaction, much like the veteran quoted below who commented on the article, was disbelief and anger that yet another man was mansplaining women’s issues to women.
And on top of that, there was some civilian woman civsplaining (note that I just coined that word and claim all rights and royalties contingent thereto) veteran’s issues to veterans and working really hard to invalidate the experience and character of women veterans by replacing their real confidence with some commercial feminine ideal. As a member of the U.S. Army Reserves for the past 17 years with two deployments in my career, I find that the advantages I’ve earned through my experience and hard work far outweigh any that might be conferred by a feminine appearance.
So, after I had my mental tirade – well, loud verbal tirade alone in my car, actually – I reverted back to a more rational mindset. I decided to see what I could see about this alleged unemployment gap and what might be causing it, and also find out more about Operation Reinvent. There might be something to it and maybe I can come up with some better answers. After all, the Pentagon can’t figure out the unemployment problem, so it should be a snap, right?
First things first: Is there actually an unemployment gap between men and women veterans? For this, I turned to the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (http://www.bls.gov/news.release/vet.nr0.htm). I discovered that, while unemployment among all veterans has declined about 1.3% from 2013 to 2014 and the total veteran unemployment rate is lower than the nonveteran rate, there are some differences between the male and female veteran unemployment rates. The difference between all male veterans and all female veterans is 0.8%, which is not statistically significant. However, the difference between male and female veterans of the entire Gulf War era (from August 2, 1990 through the present) is 1.4%. Of course, this is still not “several percentage points” as described in the article. It turns out that it comes down to Gulf War II veterans (September 2001 through the present); the unemployment rate for male Gulf War II veterans is 6%, while it’s 8.5% for females. Ok, this is technically “more than two but not many,” although I think common usage of the word “several” is in reference to integers, not fractions. Since the article is talking about a program currently in use that is designed to assist veterans who are exiting the military today, most of whom are Gulf War Veterans, in the words of politifact.com, I find this claim “Mostly True.” I would like to point out, though, that the unemployment rate for male veterans aged 18 to 24 is a whopping 17.3%, and I haven’t heard of any special programs intended to get them in touch with their masculinity, pull up their ass-dragging pants, and stop playing video games. (See what I did there? More stereotypes.)
The second question I had was “What the heck is this Operation Reinvent?” Who runs it, why did they establish it, and is this makeover crap really the only thing they do? I turns out that it’s not quite the eyewash program that the media seems determined to represent it as. It’s certainly a part that is emphasized FAR too much by the program executives and journalists, but there are other, very effective sessions of the retreat that could benefit any veteran. As you can see from their marketing video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56lDX3bNqLY), it includes peer-to-peer mentoring, business mentoring, career/life coaching, and other vital elements of getting and keeping a job. With that being said, these are tools that every veteran entering civilian life could benefit from, so having a special program that targets women veterans is not only unnecessary, but exclusionary and sexist against men.
As for who runs the program, Julie Lewit-Nirenberg is an astoundingly successful, strong, independent woman who seems to have done a lot in her life to support less advantaged demographics in women’s printed media. She was on the sales team for the feminist Ms. Magazine when it first published in 1973 and she launched the magazine Mode in 1996, which was the first women’s magazine to not only feature but focus on plus-size women. These are just a couple of the wonderful and prestigious projects she has engaged in over her impressive career (https://www.linkedin.com/in/julielewitnirenberg). I noticed, however, that, until quite recently, none of her work has escaped the gravitational forces of the fashion world, which increasingly objectifies, sexualizes, and over-feminizes women. Even her job at Ms. Magazine was in health and beauty aids sales. In her world, femininity gives women validity and sexuality gives them power. This does not tarnish her reputation at all but, let’s face it, when you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The problem of female veteran unemployment is not a nail, so stop hitting me on the head!
The third issue here is the determination of the media covering the program to whitewash it as pink, fluffy makeovers and a big fashion show. Granted, this is not entirely the media’s fault; every one of Operation Reinvent’s own videos only depict women having their hair done, putting on makeup, gushing over new clothes, and being soooo thankful for all the feminine advice they’re receiving. On top of that, all of the interviews with the organization’s executives take place in front of a backdrop of hair curlers, stylists, rows and rows of makeup, mirrors, and general girlish mayhem. Where are the business mentors and life coaches sitting down in sober conversation with advice on life choices, maintaining a work-life balance, how to negotiate salary, and matching their workplace personality to their own to ensure career happiness? If all of these are part of the program and are being glossed over in favor of surface feminization, they are doing these women veterans a grave disservice. That being said, the media takes it to another level. Case in point is this article from The Wall Street Journal (http://www.wsj.com/articles/mapping-the-human-eyebrow-1424218150), in which this male journalist, Ralph Gardner, Jr., turns the entire proceedings into a pity party for himself and his eyebrows as he sulked home after submitting to a brow makeover – and barely a mention of the veteran he’s supposed to be interviewing.
And here’s one part of this issue that I find absolutely heartbreaking. The intended interviewee of his article had this to say about her return home from Kuwait:
“Returning home from overseas you’re trying to blend back into society,” she explained. “Your self-esteem is kind of low because you’ve been away for so long. What’s new are clothing, hair. It’s a hard change. Someone like me, I don’t touch makeup.”
Oh, man! The idea that she should “blend in” when she has so many advantages and experiences that make her stand out as an awesome and accomplished person is unbelievable; and the fact that she doesn’t see herself that way is at least partially the product of a society that values women primarily for the way they look and prefers that they take a back seat instead of driving the bus. Ask any male veteran, and I’ll bet, after a year of working in a team, accomplishing missions, saving lives, and overall kicking ass, he won’t have low self-esteem. So why do women? By her own admission, the pressure to appear feminine, be pretty, and wear makeup significantly affects her self-esteem. While this is an established and unhappy fact of life for women in America, we need to support programs that counter it, not encourage it.
And this is what Operation Reinvent, for all its good intentions, does. It reinforces stereotypes and outdated values and imposes a structure of feminine behavior on women who may or may not want to fit that mold. Our society places more value on male social traits like aggression and competitiveness, but wants women to abandon these traits that they’ve acquired through military service in favor of more gender “appropriate” behavior. Military characteristics like assertiveness and bluntness are what make veterans distinctly hire-able, so why are we trying to un-train those characteristics? It really irks me when Lewit- Nirenberg talks about soldiers reconnecting with their “feminine side,” “rediscovering yourself as a woman,” or claiming that her program “instills confidence in women” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=deVw1uJ3clw). Sounds like a surgeon trying to convince them they should get a boob job. It implies that military women have somehow lost themselves and need to be guided back to the shelter of the barn, there to be kept safe and sound in the dark to ensure they don’t wander into far-off pastures of…let’s call it the bull pen. I don’t know about my fellow female veterans – actually, you know what? I do know. The female veterans I know are powerful, complete, and utterly capable, and they don’t need to slap on some lipstick to prove it.
Although I’ve spent this time mostly criticizing Operation Reinvent, let me be clear that: 1) I understand that the people setting up and running this program are not intentionally degrading women and that they have good intentions in promoting these methods; 2) I don’t think there is anything wrong with either men or women wanting to be attractive in appropriate contexts, but the idea that it’s required as a minimum standard to participate in the workforce is degrading.
Well, I’ve taken up all the space I intended with my analysis of Operation Reinvent, so my thoughts on the actual unemployment problem will wait until next time. However, I’ll sign off with this:
No matter what you think or say, no one, and I mean no one, is going to tell these two women that they need to put on a skirt and makeup to be effective.