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Female Senior NCO Presence in the Army

By Command Sgt. Maj. Marisa A. Saucedo

420th Transportation Bn. (Movement Control)

June 21, 2024

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Female Soldiers in uniform standing in a line for a photo

Since the 1920s, women have lobbied for improved working conditions, profitable employment, and opportunities in the workforce. Their advocacy continues to this day, as seen in efforts to end pay inequity and gender identity-related discrimination (Women’s Bureau, n.d.).

According to King (2023), women now run more than 10% of Fortune 500 companies, a milestone in the list’s 68-year history. The merits of this progress are clear: A study by Glass and Cook (2018) shows that women CEOs or firms with gender-diverse boards correlate with stronger business and equity practices.

Women have served officially for almost 80 years and unofficially for more than 200 in the U.S. Army (U.S. Army, n.d.). While the military is changing policies to modernize talent management, unconscious bias is still a factor when it comes to females in Army leadership roles.

The Army aims to create a shared understanding and mutual trust to enable mission command, and that requires demographics to change (Holt & Davis, 2022). If the Army does not adapt and incorporate more female senior leaders, the inaction could hamper recruiting, sow distrust in the American people, and create groupthink at senior levels. To advance into a more inclusive and diverse force, the Army must increase the women in senior noncommissioned officer (NCO) positions.

Literature Review

The minimal presence of females in the military extends beyond the NCO corps. A 2016 study by Massaquoi et al. (2021) discusses perceptions of gender and race equality in leadership and advancement among military family physicians. The significance of this study is that 40 years after women became eligible to serve in service academies, inequity persists when it comes to leadership positions. The study found that opportunities and leadership positions were unequal for females compared to males (Massaquoi et al., 2021).

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Iris Barajas, a tank commander assigned to the 4th Infantry Division

Both civilian and military organizations use words like equality, diversity, and inclusion. Even so, when females only make up 18% of active-duty officers and only 6.7% among generals and admirals – with an increase of approximately 1% over seven years (Massaquoi et al., 2021) – a disconnect exists between messaging and reality.

According to Holt and Davis (2022), 14% of enlisted personnel, 19% of officers, and 11% of Army general officers are women. In 2018, enlisted females comprised 14% of the Army force. It climbed to 16% in 2020 (Council on Foreign Relations, 2020). In 1973, women made up only 2% of the enlisted force (Council on Foreign Relations, 2020), which means in 47 years, from 1973 to 2020, the number of females in the enlisted force increased by only 14%.

The first female to attain the rank of sergeant major was Carolyn H. James in 1960 (Army Women’s Foundation, 2023), and the first female command sergeant major was Yzetta L. Nelson in 1968 (Villa, 2014). The first female graduate of the sergeants major course was Command Sgt. Maj. Betty Benson, a graduate of Class 1, 1973 (Army Women’s Foundation, 2023).

The first Sergeant Major of the Army was William O. Wooldridge, appointed in 1966 – with a male appointed every term since (Association of the U.S. Army, 2023).

In 2009, the NCO Leadership Center of Excellence (NCOLCoE) selected its first NCO as commandant. In 2023, Command Sgt. Maj. Tammy Everette became the first female to fill the role for it and the Sergeants Major Academy (NCOLCoE, 2023).


Gender inequality has more challenges than a lack of women in positions. Although females now serve in combat roles and military occupational specialties in the Army, problems such as sexual harassment and assault persist.

In fiscal year 2021 (FY21), there were 5,533 victims in sexual assault investigations: 4,470 female (81%) and 1,060 male (19%). Of those reports, 4,608 males accounted for the “subjects of investigation,” a term that implies neither guilt nor innocence (Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, 2022a).

Most victims were between 16 and 24 years old (72%), and most were in grades E1-E4 (67%) (Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, 2022a). Females in pay grades E1-E4 made up 57% of complainants in formal complaints and 80% of complainants in informal complaints (Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, 2022b).

Perhaps one cause for the low number of females in senior leadership positions is the prevalence of unwanted sexual contact and the reporting of such incidents. If half of the female victims elected to leave the service and not finish their career in the Army because of a sexual assault, that would contribute to the low percentage of females in senior leadership positions.

Another challenge to females in senior leadership positions may stem from a need for more equality, as seen in research by Reis and Menezes (2019). Work settings that “have a larger percentage of male workers, include [a] predominance of male supervisors, and [represent] traditional male occupations” may tolerate sexual harassment, the researchers note (Reis & Menezes, 2019). A study they cite showed females reporting that egalitarianism in some units lessened sexual harassment.

One may wonder whether these women gave up their femininity. Another question is whether females legitimize gender inequality in male-dominated organizations so they can assimilate into them (Reis & Menezes, 2019). If so, then they are just as guilty as males perpetuating bias. While research shows this is not the norm, female service in combat arms units is less inclusive than it seems.

Political decision-makers and society played a major role in allowing women to serve in combat arms units (Reis & Menezes, 2019). From the outside, these decisions look good and brief well, showing diversity and inclusion. However, one can question the culture in some of these units and how allowing females to serve in them affected it.

Sapper Leader Course instructor Staff Sgt. Ariana Sanchez instructs students during a boat rigging event at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri

It is more than just unit culture that creates a gap. Recruiting materials used for marketing and advertising positions in the Army show females in positions not associated with warfighting, which reinforces the military service link to masculinity (Reis & Menezes, 2019). These communications don’t align with the organization’s expectation to view women as equals.

In 1942, women served primarily in four fields: baking, clerical, driving, and medical. A year later, they received military status, benefits, and pay. Only in 2016, however, were females fully integrated into all military occupations and positions (U.S. Army, n.d.).

Some women disguised themselves as men to serve their country, dating back to Deborah Sampson in the Continental Army, and they still fight for a seat at the table 200 years later (U.S. Army, n.d.).

In March 2023, the Army launched a new branding campaign showing females in positions like tank commander, where prior ads only showed males in combat arms roles (U.S. Army, 2023). Only when females continue to fill such key leadership roles and enter new ones – such as recently appointed Command Sgt. Maj. JoAnn Naumann to U.S. Special Operations Command (Riley, 2023) – will diversity, equity, and inclusion be at the Army’s forefront.

Diversity and Ethics

The Department of Defense (DoD) Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ODEI) has an ill-structured problem regarding female leadership, specifically in the senior enlisted ranks. For example, up until 2023, there were 23 commandants at the Sergeants Major Academy, with the last five of those enlisted and all male (NCOLCoE, 2023). However, Everette made history that July by becoming the first female NCOLCoE and Sergeants Major Academy commandant (NCOLCoE, 2023).

Everette also made history as the first female installation command sergeant major for Fort Huachuca and the first female to hold the rank of command sergeant major in the military intelligence corps (Longa, 2022). Women like Everette, who succeed in challenging leadership positions, empower and continue to open doors for future female senior leaders. On the other hand, the time it took to select a female commandant could lead to a perception that females are still not equals in a male-dominated Army.

Years ago, the Army implemented a people first strategy, recognizing the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The Army can implement a scorecard for senior enlisted positions to help this process.

U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Janina Simmons, assigned as a First Sergeant for Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 108th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, 32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command, speaks at AUSA Warfighter Conference in Fayetteville, North Carolina

According to an article by Brown et al. (2021), tracking hiring metrics within an organization helps leaders assess their organization’s diversity. These metrics begin with hiring and continue throughout the employee’s career until the exit interview. Exit interviews provide managers and supervisors insight about why someone leaves an organization.

The Army could implement similar processes to determine if a lack of female nominations for positions like commandant is deliberate. If nominated, do women turn down these leadership positions, or are factors such as gender bias at play? These assessments and processes can identify potential ethical implications.

These ethical implications may be implicit rather than explicit, but that makes them no better. Army leaders must acknowledge biases and have the wherewithal to check them in those selecting or nominating Soldiers for leadership roles. They must learn their affinity, attribution, availability, and confirmation biases to make better decisions and prevent choices that can prohibit diversity and inclusion.

Gender bias is not always against the opposite sex. For example, in a double-anonymized study, faculty ranked a randomly assigned male or female application packet for a manager position, and both males and females exhibited bias toward the male applicant, depicting availability bias and its effects on the workplace (Brown et al., 2020).

Leaders who select personnel for positions based on their gender create an ethical dilemma and put their own character into question. The Army is male-dominated, and when females are not involved in decisions, policymaking, command representation, or mission command, it creates blind spots for the organization.

It is not enough to allow the females to sit at the table. They need a voice.

The Army tried to eliminate unconscious bias from promotion boards by removing photos from board files (Brown et al., 2020). Looking ahead, removing names and gender may also aid in preventing unconscious bias. Removing photos – coupled with leaders upholding the Army ethic when selecting talent based on knowledge, skills, and abilities (versus availability bias, for example) – will create diverse and inclusive organizations and allow the best talent to fill positions.

Synthesis and Recommendation

The Army’s requirement for shared understanding and mutual trust to enable mission command requires demographic changes. The military should focus on increasing diversity and inclusion by providing equal opportunities and leadership positions for females.

Females bring diversity to the force, as well as fresh perspectives, education, backgrounds, and experiences. They broaden approaches for analyzing and solving problems in an operational environment, where differences in information, knowledge, mental models, and heuristics play vital roles in current and future threats that are uncertain, complex, ambiguous, and irregular (Holt & Davis, 2022).

While having women in senior leadership roles is essential to the enterprise, placing them in junior leadership positions gets them to the table early in their careers. Positions like tank commander, squad leader, first sergeant, and section sergeants, or having mid-grade females plan weapons range and field training exercises, can break potential barriers and bias while offering developmental opportunities.

According to U.S. Army (n.d.), special operations was open to females in 2015; Command Sgt. Maj. Veronica Knapp was the first female to assume duties as the 34th Command Sergeant Major of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) in 2021; Command Sgt. Maj. Lynice Thorpe-Noel was the first female senior enlisted leader of Human Resource Command (HRC) in 2019; and Command Sgt. Maj. Teresa King was the first female commandant of the U.S. Army Drill Sergeant School in 2009.

Sgt. 1st Class Joanna Carter, U.S. Army Human Resources Command, performs facing movements during a phase II appearance board

With these sprinkled firsts in recent military history, continued progress in selecting talented females must happen before senior NCO leadership positions filled by females become the norm.

The minimal presence of females in the military does not only fall within the NCO corps. Lt. Gen. Jody Daniels was the first female to lead an Army Component as the 34th Chief of the Army Reserve and 9th Commanding General of U.S. Army Reserve Command (USARC), and Gen. Laura J. Richardson was the first woman to lead a geographic combatant command and the first woman to command U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) (U.S. Army, n.d.).

Leadership and advancement are not equal when comparing women and men. The Army must break away from cultural norms hindering cognitively diverse teams. It must embrace and enforce diversity, equity, and inclusion, from junior leadership positions to the most senior positions, as seen with the 2021 appointment of Christine E. Wormuth as the 25th Secretary of the Army in (U.S. Army, n.d.).


The Army must increase females in the Army’s senior enlisted positions to create a more inclusive and diverse force. Changing the senior leader NCO demographics in the Army will create shared understanding and mutual trust to enable mission command (Holt & Davis, 2022).

Stronger business and equity practices in the civilian workforce come from gender-diverse boards (Glass & Cook, 2018), and the Army must follow suit to solve complex problems in the operating environment now and in the future. Not adapting and incorporating more female senior NCO leaders in the Army can pose a problem for recruiting, lose the American people’s trust, and hinder organizations by creating a potential for groupthink at senior levels.


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Association of the United States Army. (2023). Sergeants major of the Army. Association of the United States Army. Retrieved May 5, 2023, from

Brown, B., Carlucci, R., & Stewart, S. (2020). The consequences of bias: We live in a world designed for men. Phalanx, 53(4), 26-33.

Brown, B., Carlucci, R., & Stewart, S. (2021). Holding ourselves accountable: Building scorecards for diversity and inclusion. Phalanx, 54(2), 36-45.

Council on Foreign Relations. (2020, July 13). Demographics of the U.S. military. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved April 28, 2023, from

Glass, C., & Cook, A. (2018). Do women leaders promote positive change? Analyzing the effect of gender on business practices and diversity initiatives. Human Resource Management, 57(4), 823-837.

Holt, D., & Davis, S. (2022). Interrupting bias in Army talent management. Parameters, 52(1), 21-39.

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Massaquoi, M.A., Reese, T.R., Barrett, J., & Nguyen, D. (2021). Perceptions of gender and race equality in leadership and advancement among military family physicians. Military Medicine, 186, 762-766.

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Reis, J., & Menezes, S. (2019). Gender inequalities in the military service: A systematic literature review. Sexuality & Culture, 24(3), 1004-1018.

Riley, R. (2023, May 1). Army Special Ops Command welcomes first female command sergeant major. Army Times. Retrieved May 4, 2023, from,sergeant%20major%20of%20the%20Army.&text=During%20a%20ceremony%20Monday%20at,assumed%20responsibility%20from%20Command%20Sgt

Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. (2022a). Appendix A: Statistical data on sexual assault.

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U.S. Army. (n.d.). Women in the United States Army. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from

U.S. Army. (2023, March 8). New Army brand redefines “Be All You Can Be” for a new generation.

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Women’s Bureau. (n.d.). History. United States Department of Labor. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from

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