In the media coverage following last week's tragedy at Fort Hood, many of the stories focused on the fact that a woman police officer played a key role in stopping the shooting rampage. Headlines ranged from, "Fort Hood: Four Dead, 16 Hurt, and a Female Cop Who Ended it All," to "'She was a hero': Brave female police officer is applauded for stopping Fort Hood shooter."
"What she did was heroic," explained Lt. Gen. Mark Milley. "She did her job and she did exactly what we'd expect from U.S. Army military police." I appreciate Milley's efforts to bring everyone's attention back to why this officer was in the news. In the face of a dangerous situation, she kept her cool and did her job. As a result, she prevented more lives from being lost. In other words, eyes up here, everyone! The news is that she did an outstanding job, not that she is a woman.
If the police officer had been male, his gender would have never been trumpeted in the headlines. Sample headlines for stories involving heroic male police officers read something like, "Police Officer of the Year's Heroics Caught on Dashcam," or "New York Police Officer Dies in Injuries Sustained in Fire." On the seedier end of the spectrum, headlines involving allegedly dirty cops read something like, "Miami Dade police officer arrested for alleged murder-for-hire plot, aiding drug traffickers," or "Detroit police officer responding to domestic violence call accused of raping victim." Whether the press is good or bad, if the officer is male, his gender is never in the headline. But if the officer is female, it is always part of the headline. And if a woman police officer performs both heroically and exactly as trained? Stop the presses!
Despite the impression that these headlines create, women performing well in male-dominated professions is not a new or unusual phenomenon. In the November, 2009 Fort Hood shooting rampage that killed 13 and wounded 38, it was also a woman police officer, Fort Hood Police Sgt. Kimberly Munley, whose swift response helped to stop to the violence. That time the headline read, "Female Police Officer Credited With Stopping Fort Hood Massacre, Hailed a Hero."
I understand including a reference to gender in cases where the officer's identity is being withheld pending notification of next of kin or completion of an investigation, which was the case in last week's incident. In these situations, gender counts as descriptive information similar to how many years the officer has been on the force, or whether he is married or has children. But this information belongs in the body of the story, not in the headline. You'd never see a headline heralding, "Married police officer thwarts bank robbery," or "Male police officer shot while making routine traffic stop." And it would help, of course, if publications had a gender-neutral policies, rather than only mentioning gender when it's a woman.
Some might argue that making gender part of the headline when women perform heroically helps to further equality by dispelling the notion that it is somehow not in women's wiring to act bravely or keep a cool head. My sense is that by perpetuating the perception that women and bravery still constitute a newsworthy combination, it does the exact opposite.
We can debate whether these headlines help or hurt public perception of women's on-the-job performance, but this much is crystal clear: Women perform equal to men in all manner of jobs, day in and day out. Even former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta agrees. Back in January of 2013, when Panetta announced that the U.S. military was finally lifting the ban on women serving in combat positions--including on the front lines -- he said, "The department's goal in rescinding the rule is to ensure that the mission is met with the best-qualified and most capable people, regardless of gender."
Panetta, Milley and women everywhere who report to duty every day know the truth. But until the media and the rest of society wake up, we're likely in for more headlines that imply an air of surprise whenever women both act heroically and perform as trained. These stories and the negative assumptions that they reveal amount to a backhanded compliment to women in general. At least we have all that equal pay to help take the sting away. Oh, wait....
Listen up, everyone. It's 2014. If you want to advance equality and thank women for a job well done all at the same time, skip the flowers and newspaper headlines. Say it with equal pay.