In 1977, despite the best efforts of some, the US Navy was not an Equal Opportunity Employer. Sexism was a huge issue. Mid-level Petty Officers expected lower ranking females to sit in their laps and stand under the mistletoe at the holiday party. Some even obliged. It was a difficult environment to navigate through.
Add to that a misuse of authority that cropped up in many places and you have the perfect recipe for a hostile work environment.
At my first duty assignment in 1978, I reported to a 2nd Class Petty Officer we called Petty Officer Tennis Shoe behind his back, partly because his name was akin to a brand of sneaker, partly because he had the scruffy appearance of one, and mostly because he exhibited the intelligence of a one.
Petty Officer Tennis Shoe didn’t like women in “his Navy” and made no effort to disguise his attitude toward female sailors. He was the total misogynist package, though he wouldn’t have known what the word meant. His desk and bulletin board were covered in men’s magazine centerfolds of naked women displaying themselves. So, whenever I was required to report to this man, I had to stand there staring at his collage of objectified, nude women in various sexually explicit poses.
I could not find a single reason to respect this man. In my opinion, he did not belong in uniform, much less at a rank to be telling others what to do. In short, he didn’t like me and the feeling was mutual.
My job at that time was to troubleshoot, repair and maintain the electronic equipment used for training new ETs in the electronics technician school. I was only an E-3 at the time, which was below the rank that according to documentation was supposed to fill that particular position. However, I believed that you should go where you’re told and do the best job possible.
Not having been trained to do the job, I had to learn from the written procedures, which I followed “by the book.” When a repair was needed, there was paperwork to fill out, with special coding for the type of issue encountered. All paperwork had to be approved, or the work could not be considered complete. Disapproved paperwork had to be redone.
One day, I received returned repair paperwork that was not only disapproved, but Petty Officer Tennis Shoe had used red pen to make his comments. This was annoying because in standard the paperwork was filled out in pencil, but red ink mark-up meant that the entire document had to be rewritten, rather than edited. (Keep in mind that the only person on base with the actual “authority” to use red ink was the Base Commander.)
I revised the paperwork based on the Petty Officer’s comments and resubmitted. It came back. Again. More red ink. He didn’t like the repair code I had used. I tried a different explanation for the repair. It came back again. This happened several times before I decided to hand carry the disapproved document down to Petty Officer’s office space and confront him.
When I asked him why he continued to disapprove a simple repair doc, he told me the repair code I was trying to use didn’t exist.
I countered that I always used the codes that were “in the book.”
He called me a liar.
Then he pointed to his desk, between a naked, busty blond and the bare ass of a curvy brunette, where he had placed a photocopy he had made of the repair code list from the manual.
I walked over the desk of another 2nd Class Petty Officer and asked for his copy of the manual, opened it up to the repair code list, and turned the page to show Petty Officer Tennis Shoe the second half of the list. He had only photocopied the first page and hadn’t even looked to see that the list continued on the next page. I suggested, in very clear terms, that he might want to actually read the manual he was supposed to be using.
You guessed it. I got called into the Chief’s office for insubordination. Behind closed doors, the Chief admitted that I was right in my assessment, but suggested I should find a more appropriate way to get my point across in the future. “Respect the rank, not the person” was the gist of his advice.
This was the moment that set me on a path that led me to understand the best way to work within the system was to use the written rules to get things done. From then on, I used the Navy’s own rules and procedures to question the status quo and push for logical and beneficial changes in a system wherein a lot of people were “cutting the end off the roast” because that’s how it had always been done.
More on that in future posts.
As a matter of note, within a few months of the above altercation, a new XO (Executive Officer) was assigned to Great Lakes. She made certain to make the rounds of every office within the recommend. Needless to say, Petty Officer Tennis Shoe’s magazine centerfolds were ordered removed immediately after her visit. Our XO was a person I could respect, along with her rank.