NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland ― The Navy and Marine Corps may soon require that official photos be submitted for promotion boards, after photo removal led to decreased diversity, senior leaders for both services said Tuesday.
In July 2020 then Secretary of Defense Mark Esper required all services within the Department of Defense to remove the photograph requirement in an effort to eliminate unconscious bias from the promotion board process.
Navy Vice Adm. John Nowell Jr., the chief of Naval personnel, said that comparing data over the past five years of one-star boards the Navy saw a decrease in diversity promotions when the photograph requirement was removed.
“I think we should consider reinstating photos in selection boards, we got the data,” Nowell said during a panel on inclusion and diversity as a force multiplier at the 2021 Sea-Air-Space conference in National Harbor, Maryland.
“It’s a meritocracy, we’re only going to pick the best of the best, but we’re very clear with our language ...that we want them to consider diversity across all areas. Right?” Nowell said. “And therefore ... I think having a clear picture on this just makes it easier. So actually our data show that it would support adding photos back in.”
Marine Brig. Gen. A.T. Williamson, director of Marine Corps manpower plans and policy division, echoed Nowell’s comments, noting that removing photos may have disadvantaged the board’s ability to promote diversity in the top ranks.
The Corps eliminated required photographs from the promotion process in September 2020 and in June extended that policy to most tattoo photos, which the Corps has required since 2015.
Williamson said the Corps is continuing to collect data from the most recent board season, but early indicators show that eliminating the photograph requirement has decreased diversity in the promotion system.
Both leaders said increased diversity was critical to mission readiness and the ability to get the job done.
“The American people need to know their military service reflects those they support and defend,” Williamson said, referring to what he called the “ethical imperative” to simply do the right thing in terms of diversity.
He added that the “operational imperative” may be the most important reason to create a diverse force, pointing out how complex the current and future battlefield will be.
“It’s challenging, it is full of problem sets that one group, that one team are not going to be able to solve alone. We need to be able to open up the diversity of thought, of experience of background to try and attract people who are going to help us solve those very complex problems.
Changing the photo policy based on evidence may be one way the Corps follows through on policies that make a difference rather than simply taking action, Williamson said.
The Marine Corps is currently conducting a survey to see if there is bias in the promotion process and if so where it is.
“If we find out that there is disparities within the way we do business within the service we need to be intellectually curious enough to ask why and figure out why and then figure out what we need to do to,” fix it, Williamson said.