Janell Hanf and Marines from her unit celebrate at the end of the Camp Pendleton Mud Run. Photo courtesy of the author. 

“I’m Not a Sir”—Dearth of Women Causes Marines to Expect Male Leadership

Eyes in the boat! Chop! Give the proper greeting!

Plebe summer. Within my first few days at the U.S. Naval Academy, I was adjusting to this new tempo and learning my “rates,” which included the names of every member of the chain of command, from my company upperclassmen all the way up to the commander in chief. We had to look straight ahead, but when passing upperclassmen, we were supposed to use our peripheral vision, give the proper greeting of the day, and address them by name.

Janell Hanf goes through The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia, as a second lieutenant, where—beyond the hair bun—she says everyone looks pretty much the same. Photo courtesy of the author.

Janell Hanf goes through The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia, as a second lieutenant, where—beyond the hair bun—she says everyone looks pretty much the same. Photo courtesy of the author.

One day, I mixed up one of my upperclassman with another student of similar height. He pulled me aside and loudly corrected me for my lack of attention to detail. I could give only one of the six basic responses, and in this case, the appropriate response was, “Sir, no excuse, sir!” There was no excuse. I learned my lesson and never forgot it.

Throughout my four years at the academy, I had to have eagle eyes to walk across the campus. When we stood watch indoors, midshipmen regulations stated that we must bark, “Attention on deck”—the call for everyone to stand at attention, backs straight and hands curled at our sides, when an officer enters a room until the officer says we can relax—for Marine Corps O4s (majors) and above, but for sailors, the call went out for O5s (commanders) and above.

I found this difficult to get correct when senior officers came on deck wearing physical training attire. The collar devices (ranks) of midshipmen first class looked suspiciously like second lieutenant or ensign bars at a distance. But no matter how challenging it was, there was never any excuse to incorrectly greet an officer or upperclassman. Midshipmen were supposed to observe every single detail, salute officers, and give proper greetings.

They ingrained this in me over the course of my time in Annapolis.

So I was surprised after I received my commission as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps and arrived at my first duty station. When I got to the fleet, with my brown hair always tucked back into a tight regulation bun, Marines would often surprise me—by calling me “sir.”

Hand my ID card to the gate guard.

I’m two feet away.

“Have a good day, sir!”

Usually the young Marine would catch himself, and I, instead of verbally berating him, could tell by the look on his face that his own embarrassment was sufficient shame for the mistake.

But it happened a lot throughout my years of active duty, at every rank.

“Sir … uh, ma’am.”

In conversation. Even walking through the post exchange without a cover (hat) on. It always started with an enthusiastic, “Good morning, sir!” And then it would turn awkward: “Uh, I mean ma’am.”

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Walking across the parking lot at a gas station—I get it, you see Oakleys, or the officer rank on the collar, and just assume. You’ve been trained by male drill instructors and male noncommissioned officers.

Maybe you’ve never worked for a female officer in charge. But you are a Marine. You were trained to high standards of discipline and attention to detail. Don’t you pride yourself on being a “trained observer,” able to spot even the smallest clues to identify a threat in a hostile environment?

Mixing up a greeting when staring at an officer face to face showcases laziness and lack of attention to detail. Here’s a slightly ridiculous combat comparison: Marines must have positive identification before they shoot or engage a target. Just because someone looks suspicious or carries a weapon doesn’t automatically make them a threat. You have to take some extra time, when the combat conditions allow, to observe their behavior.

Janell Hanf and Marines from her unit celebrate at the end of the Camp Pendleton Mud Run. Photo courtesy of the author.

Janell Hanf and Marines from her unit celebrate at the end of the Camp Pendleton Mud Run. Photo courtesy of the author.

So have positive ID before you salute and greet. It is OK if you’re not 100% certain of someone’s gender. The Marine Corps now welcomes trans Marines, women who choose to wear short buzzed hairstyles, and those who don’t wish to identify as binary.

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If you’re not sure of someone’s gender, give a gender-neutral greeting based on rank, such as, “Good morning, captain,” or, “Good morning, lieutenant.”

A photo of Janell Hanf, right, with a colleague at his retirement ceremony shows the differences between men’s and women’s Marine Corps uniforms.

A photo of Janell Hanf, right, with a colleague at his retirement ceremony shows the differences between men’s and women’s Marine Corps uniforms.

And it doesn’t just apply in person. I always knew when I was the only woman on an email thread if it was addressed to “Gentlemen.” Even when I was the only person on the email, it would often begin, “Good morning, sir.” When that happened, I replied to the email and then cracked a joke just before my signature block, “P.S. Not a ‘sir.’”

It only takes a moment to think and avoid this mistake. When I’m not sure of someone’s gender based on a first name, I open the email using the individual’s rank and last name: “Major Brown.” In a group email, instead of a gender-specific term like “gentlemen,” I use an inclusive term like “Marines,” or “Leaders” if talking to fellow officers and staff noncommissioned officers, and if I’m talking to my section, something simple, like “Team.”

As minorities, we know how scarce we are. I understand—maybe only one out of every 12 or so officers a young Marine runs into may be a woman. I encouraged my Marines to exercise the opportunity to strengthen attention to detail and exercise it as the skill of a trained observer. Every time we make a snap assumption, it highlights and reinforces the awareness of that individual as a minority—as if I’m the outsider. During my time in uniform, I wasn’t the one Marines expected to see as the officer because I’m a woman. Because I’m not a sir.

We have had more than 100 years of women in the Marine Corps. I always made a point to tell my Marines to stop acting like a woman in uniform is some kind of novelty.

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The effort that minorities take to be inclusive of fellow minorities should not be hidden or invisible. If everyone, especially those who find themselves in the majority, took a few extra seconds to pause, rather than make a careless mistake, we could build a culture of greater respect where people are observed and respected for who they are instead of who we expect them to be.

The author, far right, poses with other Marines while training in Barstow, California. To the author, it’s just a group of Marines, but she wonders what others see. Photo courtesy of the author.

The author, far right, poses with other Marines while training in Barstow, California. To the author, it’s just a group of Marines, but she wonders what others see. Photo courtesy of the author.

When you see a rank, I would tell my Marines, don’t just react or assume. Pause. Take in every clue that you can observe: face, hairstyle, body type. Then make a greeting. This awkward mistake happened so frequently—sometimes it happened every day, or multiple times per day. Openly, I would joke about it. Usually, if someone pointed it out or asked me if it bothered me, I would respond with, “If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been called ‘sir,’ I could probably retire early—or at least take a nice vacation.”

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Janell Hanf

Janell Hanf

Janell Hanf served as a Marine Corps logistics officer, cultural support team leader, maintenance management officer, company commander, and operations officer at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; Helmand Province, Afghanistan; Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms; and Camp Pendleton, California. She is also a military spouse. Janell recently transitioned from active duty and continues to serve in the Marine Corps Reserve.

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