Girl Veterans Get Makeovers. Boy Veterans Get Jobs.

Well, that is a rather simplistic view of it, I will admit, but one that has an unusually large and disturbing kernel of truth in it. As I continue to do research into the issue of female veteran unemployment, I am astounded at the level of disconnection between the real and sometimes dire needs of unemployed female veterans and the seemingly superficial solutions offered. This is not to say that there don’t exist some very good programs that deal with the more serious issues that veterans face, but they are often ill-equipped to deal with the specific problems that females encounter.

In transitioning to civilian life, all veterans struggle with health issues, mental health problems, culture change, financial problems, homelessness, and lack of family support; however, women tend to both suffer more  from these challenges and have specific needs that are not currently being met. To compound this problem for women, while the population of male veterans is projected to decrease over the next decade, female veterans are the fastest growing veteran cohort.

While I’m going to focus mostly on the culture of veteran transition assistance specific to employment, it’s important to recognize some of the underlying issues that also contribute to the statistics. Let’s begin with a very military style comparison chart that I’ll call Challenge and Response to summarize what we’re dealing with here.

While these facts are just highlights, they are symptomatic of the overall culture and institutional deficiencies that contribute to female veteran unemployment, although new initiatives such as the Women Veterans Program Manager being installed at Veterans Affairs Offices are gaining ground. The most damaging feature of these findings is that they are cyclical and mutually sustaining. Being divorced or a single parent contributes to lack of social support, which leaves a veteran less likely to recover from PTSD, which then contributes to physical illness, all of which are factors that increase the likelihood of unemployment. Again, while these factors do affect all veterans, it has been indicated by recent research that they disproportionately affect women. For a little more information, take a look at the Disabled American Veterans’ report “Women Veterans: The Long Journey Home” at https://www.dav.org/wp-content/uploads/women-veterans-study.pdf.

While the VA is beginning to do its part in dealing with these substantive issues, certain other organizations cling to the comfortable, tried-and-true fallback of putting some makeup on them. Enter three organizations (which also have varying degrees of potential to offer real help) that insist on making it all about the dress.

First, and most gratuitously, Makeovers That Matter…. “Helping women look better on the outside and feel stronger on the inside.” Ugh! As if one is directly related to the other, or, moreover, should be. Their main service is just what is advertised – a makeover. Similar to Operation Reinvent (see my last post for more info), they pinkify everything and conflate femininity with confidence. The photos that litter the webpage are mostly of women made over in the image of what is required by our society and who are supposed to be convinced that this will magically ensure their success. It’s like they’re your Fairy Godmother.

This program, like Operation Reinvent, offers other services that are buried deep within the webpage architecture and, even when found, leave you wondering exactly what in the world is really going on. Their Mindset Program touts a “body, mind, and spirit approach to style.” Um, I’m sorry, what does that even mean? And who exactly are the specialists hired to “guide and teach these women utilizing the learning approach of auditory, visual, hands on, and group participation.” Are they joining a cult? This is all very hippy-dippy and special, but watch the video (http://www.makeoversthatmatter.org/about-us/makeover-mindset-program) and you get a better idea.

The voices are difficult to hear, but the captions relate the overall themes. It’s not all that bad, really. It’s a bit spiritual and retreat-like, but they do briefly, among the advice on diet, yoga, makeup, and wardrobe, offer a financial advising session and an overview of veterans’ services. Although I will say that the financial “advising” session looks a lot like some of those “free wine tastings” I’ve been to where you can have as much wine as you want as long as you listen to the guy trying to sell you a crappy mutual fund. My main beef here is, again, like Operation Reinvent, the pink-washing. Why does any substance offered have to be smothered in lace and sparkles and sugar and spice and everything nice?

Next up, Final Salute Inc. Ok, number one, what kind of name is that? Is this where female veterans go to die? Sounds so depressing. Second, “Inc.”? Meaning a for-profit company? I’m not entirely sure of the implications of that, so I won’t try to analyze it, but it seems a bit strange that a charitable organization is being run on a for-profit basis.

When I first looked into this organization, I was a little impressed. The Housing Outreach Mentorship Encouragement (HOME) Program, although obviously a clunky attempt to make the name fit the acronym, is substantive, well thought out, and, most importantly, desperately needed. My only complaint is that they are only able to reach a few lucky women, having placed only 39 individuals since inception. They also offer financial assistance with rent, security deposits, and utilities through the Savings Assessment and Financial Education (SAFE) (a slightly less awkward acronym) Program. Again, incredible, much needed assistance the only fault of which is its limited reach.

Then I clicked on their Stand Up Program and was deflated once again. Business attire, dress shoes, accessories, make-overs, image consulting. Sigh…. Well, at least, I thought, they are offering something truly substantive and not actually hiding it behind the pink curtain. As I watched yet another, although slightly less princessy, feminine propaganda video, some of the quotes really wrecked me. “Just being pretty is a confidence booster.” Why is feeling pretty a confidence booster?!?! Why isn’t being skilled, trained, capable, strong, educated, supported, talented, intelligent, or courageous a confidence booster?

Then I discovered the queen – literally – of all outdated, sexist purveyors of the feminine ideal.

“The Ms. Veteran America competition highlights more than the strength, courage, and sacrifice of our nations military women, but also reminds us that these women are Mothers, Daughters, Sisters and Wives.”

No, I’m not kidding; I wish I were. Final Salute actual runs a Ms. Veteran America beauty pageant. So if we need reminding of the dual role of these women, who, may I ask, is reminding everyone that military men are Fathers, Sons, Brothers, and Husbands? I’ll tell you who – nobody. Because it’s not required as part of their social or professional identity. In fact, the social requirement placed on women, but not men, to inhabit the care role in addition to a professional role is one of, if not the most determining factor in the wage gap and is definitely one of the reasons for the difference in the unemployment rate.

A third organization, Dress for Success, despite its slightly cringe-worthy name, has a more authentic, concrete approach to assistance. The idea is that the suit (with nary a mention of makeovers and femininity) is just the starting point for a support system that continues through the job seeking, finding, and retention process. The outfit is clearly demarcated on the website as a tool for a job interview, not a flimsy substitute for self respect and confidence. There is even a nod to women who may be in non-traditional fields, as this portion of the program bestows a suit “appropriate for the industry” in which the job seeker is interviewing. As an added blessing, as much as I searched their website, I could only find one single lonely picture of a woman being made over.

With the suit as a springboard, the organization offers the use of a career center including computer access and job training and employment retention programs. All of these are decidedly robust offerings, but I found the most important element of them all is a professional network, one of the key elements missing from the female veteran experience, as I’ll expand upon a little later. The monthly meetings, mentor assignments, and expert speakers provide continuous support and advice in all aspects and stages of a career. In other words, they don’t just slap some lipstick on you, call it a day, and throw you back out into the world to discover that your new blouse is not, in fact, a breastplate against the blows of discrimination and that your new curling iron makes a poor sword  with which to battle a culture intent on maintaining gender stratification.

None of the criticisms above are to say that professional appearance is not important and a challenge for veterans. Really, how many suits does the male infantry sergeant exiting the military after 6-10 years have in his closet? He’ll need help with his image, also, and there are far fewer organizations to help him than there are to help women with this issue. Also, I realize that some women will want these things and fit this role, but it leaves anyone who doesn’t outside in the cold. What about the female electrical technician who is struggling to impress potential employers in a male-dominated, blue-collar field? How exactly do these programs help her? Consider, also, that women currently enlisting will begin filling roles in combat positions and learning skills that definitely do not fit the expected gender roles of society and these programs. What support will they be offered?

The idea that women’s employment must begin with a suit and/or makeup once again places strict limits on which activities women are expected to engage in. Why can’t it begin with a hard hat, a pair of work coveralls, a flight suit, or running shoes? Military women are special, capable, and unique because of the roles they have inhabited in the military. They should not be asked to abdicate those roles once they enter the civilian world.

And again, my issue is not necessarily, or at least wholly, with these organizations which truly believe they are doing something good and beneficial. It’s not even as if I believe that these services don’t provide benefit. It’s the the underlying pressures and assumptions about women, about women veterans, and the image that women veterans have of themselves, which make these programs expected, desired, and even (yes, I admit it), in some cases, needed.

“One of the most persistent problems is a military and veterans’ culture that is not perceived as welcoming to women and does not afford them equal consideration.” – DAV Women Veterans Study

Wow. I’ll tell you what, this study has some sharp one-liners that really hit home with me, and it’s the first thing I’ve read that doesn’t pull many punches about the attitudes and uncomfortable facts that surround women soldiers and veterans. Through this and several other sources, I’ve isolated four key factors, in addition to the underlying issues, that contribute to the unemployment rate gap between women veterans and both their male veteran and female civilian counterparts.

Identity. Women veterans often do not identify as veterans in much more than a superficial sense. They simply do not, on a very basic level, feel that the definition of their person includes their military service. To someone outside of this experience, it is extremely difficult to explain, but this leads many of us to devalue our experience on resumes (some even excluding it entirely) or in job interviews. For anyone whose entire career consists of their military experience, this is obviously a crushing detriment.

Some of you will notice that I used the pronouns “us” and “our” just now; that is because I, too, behaved this way until quite recently. As a Reservist, I saw my active duty time as an interruption of my career instead of an enhancement, when many of my most impressive accomplishments occurred during those times. Those years were relegated to one or two lines each at the bottom of my resume, leaving large gaps in my employment history that potential employers would certainly see as a red flag.

Network. It is undeniable that female soldiers do not benefit as greatly as men from the professional network inherently created by the camaraderie of the military. We may experience short periods of solidarity while deployed, but that quickly disappears back home in the face of the potential for impropriety and suspicions of infidelity. I know more than one female soldier returning from deployment who has been directly confronted by the accusation of a wife or girlfriend. And I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to call a fellow soldier or superior officer whose significant other responded to my call with an accusatory “Who’s this?” even though I had just very professionally asked to speak with the soldier by rank and last name. Even texting is fraught with apprehension. Most single male soldiers don’t maintain friendships either; I mean, how can they hook up or get a girlfriend while hanging out with a woman?

Industry. Although women still occupy more administrative and medical jobs in the military than do men, enough of them are entering technical or skilled worker positions that the transition to the usually male-dominated civilian analogous field can be very difficult. Even women who gain professional skills in the military usually do so in occupational areas, such as aviation or electronics/communications, that, in the civilian world, don’t traditionally welcome women.

Culture. This is obviously a very broad category and would be the most difficult to pin down and alter for the better. As the DAV study pointed out, though, even the culture of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs remains stubbornly unwelcoming to women. In addition, as much as the military seems a hostile place to women sometimes, the civilian world makes even greater demands, stacking femininity and attractiveness on top of the “strength, courage, and sacrifice” that these women have already shown. Organizational and employer education programs on both sides of this fence are sorely needed.

So, Pentagon, since I’ve so kindly done some actual research and provided detailed and supportable improvement points based on the findings and recommendations of an actual government agency, do you think you could expend just a little more effort and money in programs that do more than make the problem look pretty?

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