Two reports meant to help legislators understand how women are faring in the Vermont National Guard appear to have missed their mark, according to some state lawmakers.
Guard leaders presented the reports Tuesday as evidence that the organization is doing everything in its power to understand and stamp out sexist attitudes and behavior. “Our service members don’t want to work in a sexist culture,” Maj. Gen. Steven Cray told a joint legislative committee.
Cray, adjutant general of the state’s 3,500-strong Air and Army National Guard units, presented the reports against a backdrop of intense media scrutiny. Recent stories by VTDigger.org have outlined alleged instances of alcohol abuse, cronyism, sexual harassment and retaliation against a whistleblower.
Cray said he was in “complete disagreement” with such characterizations as “the Guard is stuck in the 1950s” or “the leadership is in denial,” calling them hurtful.
“The men and women of the Vermont National Guard take exception to those accusations,” Cray said.
The reports, however, provided legislators with little insight into whether the Guard's culture is really changing, said Rep. Diana González (P/D-Winooski).
She has asked for years for data on the number of sexual assault reports and how each was resolved, with accompanying historical data that would enable lawmakers to understand what strategies are working and what aren’t.
“We can’t do our job if we don’t have a report that we can read,” González said.
One of the write-ups, the annual “Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Report,” required for the last six years, provides an annual data snapshot but offers no insight into how the data has changed over time, González said.
For example, there were two sexual assault reports against Guard soldiers for alleged incidents that occurred in 2018. González expressed frustration, however, that data about previous years was not included.
Similarly, she expressed annoyance with how survey data was presented. One section showed a 6 percent drop in the number of soldiers who reported engaging in risky behaviors, such as riding with people driving under the influence or having sex with multiple partners.
“Is that statistically significant? I don’t know,” González said. There's lots of data but it's hard to assess, she said.
Cray said he believed the report complied with the statute, and that he'd be happy to provide something different should legislators require it.
Sen. Alison Clarkson (D-Windsor) asked Cray how the Guard’s data and reporting compared to those of other states' organizations. Cray responded that such an analysis was not possible because the Vermont National Guard is the only one that presents this report to its legislature.
Clarkson asked if the Guard measures its data against other states' units in different ways.
“We don’t. There is no comparison,” Cray said.
At that, Clarkson’s eyes widened and she mouthed “Wow!”
The Guard’s “Annual Gender Report” for 2018 was also made public Tuesday. The guard volunteered that report after a legislative effort to require it fell short last year.
The 37-page report notes that women make up only 15 percent of the Guard’s 3,500 full- and part-time soldiers, and that only 7 percent are in command positions.
There are many reasons for this, according to Doris Sumner, the Guard’s Equal Employment Manager. These include a lack of interest in joining a force that is 85 percent male, and institutional barriers like the fact that women weren’t allowed to serve in combat roles until 2013and that pregnancy “takes us out of that professional development pipeline.”
Understanding these gender imbalances is important to helping the Guard face and address sexual discrimination and related issues, she said.
“Sexual harassment and sexual offenses are based on power, and there are more men in positions of power,” she said.
Rep. Tom Stevens (D-Waterbury), chair of the General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee, said he and his colleagues hadn’t had a chance to review the gender report, but he expected to have Guard officials return to discuss it at a later date. He said he, too, was disappointed in some elements of the sexual harassment report.
“I always want people to be interested in what they are presenting and see the context in which we see it,” Stevens said. “Our understanding of sexual assault has evolved over the last five years, and the report should reflect that.”