In May 2020, I called one of my closest friends to tell her of my selection as a principal on the fiscal 2021 command and key billet list. I told her that I was the only Black woman selected as a principal for the military intelligence branch. Of all the congratulatory comments I received, hers is the statement that had the greatest impact on me.
She said—with a clear mixture of awe and pride in her voice—“Octavia, you are the hope of slaves.”
Those words acutely remind me that it is impossible to ignore the bond that connects an “only” to the “hope” of those who fought and sacrificed for that hope to become reality.
However, I must admit that throughout my career, I most often associated my presence as the “only” with an intense amount of pressure to not fail. I constantly felt that one mistake, however small, could set back an entire demographic of officers because in any particular space and time, I was more likely than not “the only.”
There are few examples more illuminating of that pressure than the occasions I unintentionally served as a “diversity bookend” to now-retired Gen. Vincent Brooks. I recall briefing him on intelligence planning equities in full rooms where I was routinely the only African American female, and he was often the only African American male.
In those briefings, it became even more important that I displayed a level of preparedness, articulation and confidence that would clearly provide an unequivocal and affirmative response to the silent question, “Does she belong here?” and maybe even possibly to the question, “Does he?”
To get a fairly accurate depiction of my career as an African American female military intelligence officer, one must only swap out the attendees, maintain the degree of underrepresentation, then press “replay” on the aforementioned scenario. Indeed, probably the only thing worse than not having a seat at the table or to not be present in a room is to have your subordinates, peers or senior leaders question the legitimacy of your presence once you are there, even if it is only done so unconsciously.
Because clearly, if people who looked like me were truly good enough, there would be more of us in the room, right? I often told myself that this is what the majority must think of those of us who still managed to find ourselves in a seemingly perpetual state of underrepresentation, even in today’s Army.
I have never experienced an overt act of racism in the Army. However, it is second nature to me to feel excluded. And, frankly, I believe this systemic practice of exclusion—or underrepresentation—is more prevalent and offensive than a singular act of outright bigotry.
When issues are systemic, it is inherently harder to point to a specific person, act, policy or procedure as the source of the problem. It is therefore more challenging to work toward a solution when you don’t quite know who or what to fix.
But what we can do is start with an important acknowledgment that yes, the overt system of slavery is over. However, systemic racism, which begets exclusionary and underrepresentation practices, is still alive and well, even in today’s Army.
For example, on June 25, 2020, the U.S. Army Human Resources Command released the results of the fiscal 2020 lieutenant colonel promotion selection board. This promotion list contained the names of 103 military intelligence officers. Of those 103 was the name of one African American woman, selected in her first above-zone look. There were no African American female officers selected in their primary and most competitive zone of consideration.
Additionally, on July 15, 2020, Human Resources Command released the results of the fiscal 2020 colonel promotion selection board. This list contained the names of 23 military intelligence officers. There were no African American female military intelligence officers selected in any zone of consideration.
That neither selection board identified a single African American female military intelligence officer to promote in the primary zone both profoundly frustrates and saddens me. It makes me question my decision to remain in this profession that I love. When I have to quietly absorb yet another hit of this magnitude, I instinctively ask myself, why stay?
Measure of Failure
Then-Lt. Col. Remo Butler and then-Col. Irving Smith III both described the downward trajectory in promotion rates that African American officers experience in Army War College articles published in Parameters in 1999 and 2010, respectively.
They asserted that the systemic inability of African American officers to reach the highest levels of the Army, to include general officer, amounts to failure. Indeed, if African American female military intelligence officers are still underrepresented at the lieutenant colonel and colonel ranks, and have never reached the rank of general in the military intelligence branch, how much more of a failure is that?
That said, I am not prepared to concede that there is an absence of talent among African American female military intelligence officers, as alluded to by the recent promotion selection board results. Instead, I want to attempt to identify the root causes that may result in this underrepresentation or exclusion. I also want to provide recommendations on how to possibly avoid a repeat of past outcomes.
First, I recommend that we shift the objective away from just the attainment of diversity among African American female officers in the military intelligence branch, but instead to a desired end state that also includes equity and inclusion.
In modern times, the broadened definition of diversity “includes but is not limited to race, color, ethnicity, nationality,” says Karen Armstrong, a career counselor with Penn State World Campus, in a June 2019 blog post on the National Association of Colleges and Employers website.
She adds that equity is “the guarantee of fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all while striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups.”
Finally, Armstrong details that inclusion is “authentically bringing traditionally excluded individuals and/or groups into processes, activities, and decision/policy making in a way that shares power and ensures equal access to opportunities and resources.”
Focus on Opportunity
Simply put, if we only focus on the “presence” element of diversity, we run the risk of not attaining the essential goals of guaranteed opportunities and shared power that are represented by the precepts of equity and inclusion. It is not sufficient to get more African American female military intelligence officers to the table or in the room if they are not granted the opportunity to meaningfully contribute to critical processes and decisions.
For the military intelligence branch, I suggest that the diversity, equity and inclusion focus for African American female officers begin with the lieutenant population. It is difficult to ignore the role that an officer’s successful completion of key development assignments will play in her competitiveness for future promotion. As it stands, we tend to place the most significant emphasis on an officer’s performance in captain, major and lieutenant colonel key development positions as promotion rates to major, lieutenant colonel and colonel become progressively smaller.
However, it is my position that African American female military intelligence officers are routinely underrepresented in platoon leader, company executive officer and assistant intelligence positions. This underrepresentation in key lieutenant developmental positions is undoubtedly the stage-setter for either underrepresentation or exclusion in company and field grade key development assignments, at worst, or their lack of preparedness for these important key development assignments, at “best.” It also deprives them of early opportunities to dispel gender and racial stereotypes as well as the space to learn how to build teams and foster relationships, which are critical elements of any mission success.
As such, military intelligence senior leaders must clearly establish diversity, equity and inclusion expectations, and commanders at the company, battalion and brigade levels must commit to intentional acts of inclusion. These leaders must be prepared to go back to the key development slate drawing board when key billets in their formation are predominantly composed of one gender and/or race.
It is not my position that leaders should extend a key development position to an officer based solely on gender and/or race. That is not fair to the qualified person who did not receive the position or to the unqualified person who did. However, talent managers should deliberately extend the offer to compete for these critical key development opportunities to a diverse pool of candidates.
Simply put, leaders must start the race with a focus on inclusion but run the race solely on merit. The prevailing issue is that we apply the same standard of proficiency (successful completion of key development assignments) across the entire military intelligence officer population when there is a significant segment of that population (African American females) that lacks the access and opportunity required to garner that experience and perform accordingly.
Local talent managers should deliberately review demographic data points on the total number of candidates available, contacted, interviewed, and selected or hired. This data would enable leaders to identify those specific areas that impede diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in their units and to develop viable recruiting or professional development (i.e., interview training) plans accordingly.
My worst fear is that the underrepresentation or exclusion of African American female officers in leadership positions is a part of the norm. This is indicative in the complete lack of outrage or any other notable reaction after the release of the military intelligence promotion selection boards. It therefore remains possible that this same outcome will happen again. This will only serve to further widen the gap in achieving diversity, equity and inclusion among the military intelligence senior officer ranks and will ultimately cause other officers who look like me to ask themselves, why stay?
Young African American female officers need to see representations of themselves in the senior ranks. We all know that generals make other generals. In other words, successful officers create other successful officers. As such, it is difficult to effectively mentor and encourage other African American female military intelligence officers to settle in for a long career in the Army when there are now only two African American female military intelligence colonels in the Army.
Indeed, the reality is that African American female military intelligence colonels are created few and far between. For instance, I am aware of four sitting African American female military intelligence battalion commanders. The earliest promotion board for either of them is in fiscal 2022. Contingent on the completion of a successful battalion command, I know I am next in the pipeline for the fiscal 2024 colonel’s board. I know each of them by name and can count the totality of “us” on one hand.
As I mentioned earlier, I believe that these numbers are the result of a problem that is systemic in nature—in our country, in our Army and in our branch. As such, it is imperative that we create spaces that can handle or facilitate a candid dialogue about conscious and unconscious biases and how they show up in our formations, i.e., on officer key development slates. If we avoid this discussion, we ultimately prolong this issue of underrepresentation and exclusion of an entire demographic.
In contrast, the sooner we resolve the issue, the sooner the military intelligence branch—and the Army—can begin to fully reap the benefits of this overlooked source of talent and, in turn, provide plenty of amazing answers to the question, why stay?
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Lt. Col. Octavia Scott is the operations division chief, Intelligence Directorate, Eighth Army, Camp Humphreys, South Korea. Previously, she was a military intelligence branch career manager, U.S. Army Human Resources Command, Fort Knox, Kentucky. She has deployed twice to Iraq and also to Afghanistan and Jordan.