Coast Guard’s Grappling with Harassment and Discrimination Offers Lessons on Leadership Accountability

Lt. Cmdr. Kerry Karwan, a retired member of the Coast Guard and member of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), attended the Dec. 11 joint congressional hearing by the U.S. House Oversight and Homeland Security Committees. The issue at hand was one she had personal experience with. “Righting the Ship,” the congressional report that informed the hearing, says Coast Guard leadership had failed to conduct prompt, thorough and impartial investigations into allegations of discrimination, harassment and bullying in recent years.

After 24 years in the Coast Guard, Karwan was not promoted from an O4 Lieutenant Commander to an O5 Commander. Karwan screened for the O5 position in 2014 and from 2015–2017 she served in an O5 billet, but she was never officially promoted. In the Coast Guard, those who are not promoted to Commander after 20 years are honorably retired. Karwan retired June 1, 2017. She said in an interview with DiversityInc that she believes her lack of promotion and forced retirement were a result of her receiving in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments while trying to become pregnant and symptoms of her polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder that impacts fertility.

“It was gender specific for me, I think,” Karwan said. “They considered getting IVF as an elective surgery. Getting a nose job or a boob job is an elective surgery.”

Karwan began undergoing IVF treatments in 2014 after she was unable to get pregnant. Doctors suspected she had PCOS in 2014, and she was officially diagnosed in 2016. Doctors later determined Karwan’s condition to be service-related. Karwan also says she was not receiving financial support while undergoing IVF while she was at the unit: an issue she brought up to her commanding officer’s boss and never saw addressed. The Coast Guard issues a grant for adoption, but not for IVF.

Karwan wrote a white paper outlining the negative impact her duty and deployment had on her IVF treatments. It went up the chain of command for consideration, meanwhile, she stood another 155 duty days without treatment.

She ultimately filed a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) complaint, which is still pending, the day before she retired in 2017.

The December congressional report said Coast Guard leaders did not hold officials accountable for incomplete, faulty investigations into allegations of discrimination and harassment. Leaders additionally failed to take action to address retaliation against people who reported harassment and bullying. The report calls for “significant improvements” in the Coast Guard’s policies and procedures moving forward.

Kimberly Young-McLear said her case — in which she was harassed for being a Black lesbian woman — was not unique. Others have spoken out with similar stories of discrimination. (Photo Credit: U.S. Coast Guard)

Central to the report is a case involving a member of the permanent teaching staff at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, Lt. Cmdr. Kimberly Young-McLear. In 2015, she reported that her commander created a hostile work environment for her and harassed her based on her gender, race and sexual orientation. Young-McLear is Black and lesbian. The report says the investigation found Young-McLear’s allegations were never properly looked into. Instead, the Coast Guard sought to resolve the problem through an alternative dispute resolution process.

Karwan met Young-McLear in New York at a cyber security meeting in 2016. At the time, Karwan had not yet filed her DHS complaint, but she said the two had spoken about their similar experiences with discrimination.

Young-McLear testified at the hearing in December, saying that the Coast Guard never appropriately investigated her complaints. After she faced Coast Guard retaliation, Young-McLear turned to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General. She said her case — in which the Coast Guard did not hold perpetrators accountable for creating a hostile work environment — is not isolated.

Related story: Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Kimberly Young-McLear to Receive Whistleblowers Award

“This hearing hit close to home,” Karwan said. “I flew from California to attend just to see what the reception was going to be and how serious the Coast Guard was going to take it. Because mine’s still pending so depending on how they were going to handle this issue moving forward could have a huge impact on whether I get any kind of relief for what happened to me when I was in the Coast Guard.”

In 2015, Kerry Karwan donated two of her uniforms to the Old Coast Guard Station museum in Virginia Beach, Va. for an exhibit featuring women in the Coast Guard. Two years later, she would be filing a DHS complaint regarding gender discrimination she believes she experienced. (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard, Petty Officer 3rd Class Jasmine Mieszala)

Karwan said one of the most egregious situations she faced was in 2016 when a higher-up compared her getting IVF treatments to committing a DUI. The comment came after Karwan sought to dispute lower marks she received on an evaluation. Karwan filed an equal opportunity (EO) complaint in 2016, because she believed her lower marks were retribution for her firing a male civilian coworker who was friends with her command staff in 2015. Instead, she found out her lower marks were not because of questions of her professionalism, but because of doubts about her emotional stability due to the IVF she was undergoing.

“‘Well, you were a good performer before and you were a good performer afterwards, but it’s like you had an incident,’ Karwan said. “And I was like, ‘Did you just compare me trying to get pregnant using medical means the same as someone having an alcohol offense?’”

Her EO complaint was dismissed.

Karwan’s retirement day came and went, and instead of the usual celebrations and fanfare retirees received, she was barely acknowledged.

“I was trying to have my career and my family, and I ended up losing both,” she said. Karwan, who is 44, is still undergoing IVF.

Karwan said she filed her discrimination complaint and continues to speak out against the treatment she faced in hopes of sparking change so no one faces what she faced. She said right now, there’s very little leadership accountability in the Coast Guard. If a supervisor wrongly gives a member a low mark on an evaluation, it is the responsibility of the person who received the mark to spend the time and money to overturn it.

“Right now, the onus, the responsibility, the financial burden is on the victim,” Karwan said. “It should be on the senior person, the leader to prove without a shadow of a doubt that I deserve whatever punishment, treatment, etc. that I get.”

She also said that instead of evaluation of leaders coming from the top, it should be a 360-degree process that involves everyone, regardless of rank. Karwan said she grew up hearing stories from her mother who was a police officer in the U.K. in the late 1950s and 1960s. Many of Karwan’s experiences in the U.S. military mirrored her mother’s that occurred decades before.

“Don’t they say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different response?” Karwan said. “My mom has been doing stuff since the 1950s and here we are in 2020 and we’re having the same issues. Maybe we’re doing business wrong.”

But the military is not devoid of support from leaders, and those who are leading effectively and responsibly can serve as examples as the military grows more diverse. Sgt. Trish King spent 20 years in the Army and is the Federal Advocacy Director of the Modern Military Association of America. She is transgender, and during her service became the first woman to serve in the infantry. She came out and began transitioning during her time in the military and said she experienced support from higher-ups.

She said in an interview with DiversityInc that one particular leader treated her the same as any other woman under him.

Trish King was the first woman — and first openly transgender woman — to serve in the Army’s infantry. (Photo courtesy of Trish King)

“It seemed like every leader I would meet, we would have to have that transgender conversation. It would be like, ‘OK, I know you’re trans, if you have any issues please let me know,’ … But this was the first leader that didn’t feel it was necessary to have that special conversation with me. I was just another soldier working for this leader.”

However, King said in the infantry she had more of an issue with the fact that she was a woman than the fact that she was transgender. The infantry had been male-only for generations and accommodations were not designed for both genders.

She said the key to a successful military is diversity, in all senses of the word.

“We can’t expect to have the best and brightest unless we’re allowing every qualified person to come and serve in the military,” she said.

Karwan said though there is more diversity in lower military ranks, certain groups are still remaining underrepresented at the top. The military is bringing more women into the ranks, but they’re not reaching the senior level. Because of sexual harassment, assault and other forms of discrimination, women and others are leaving the military because they do not have support. Without diverse leaders, Karwan said, the system will not change.

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“You’re asking the people that are part of the culture and that created the culture to change the very culture that created them … Expecting the people that are a product of the culture to be the ones to change it is probably the problem and the reason why we’re stuck where we’re at,” she said.

King said leaders in both the military and civilian worlds need diversity and leadership accountability to achieve success. She said she believes this shift toward diversity is happening faster in the civilian world because a company’s stakeholders have a direct impact on their earnings and bottom line.

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These stakeholders are becoming increasingly diverse, and therefore, so must the leadership and policies.

“You have to acknowledge who your stakeholders are,” King said. “Whether you’re in the military and the stakeholders our your leaders — the people you report to — and also your subordinates — those who report to you, or you’re in the civilian world and those stakeholders are your employees, your suppliers, your distributors, your customers, those stakeholders are anybody who touches your organization. And understanding that our stakeholders are diverse. Understanding that our stakeholders, that those who have a hand in our success, don’t always look, sound, love like we do, and that we still want to value them as people and value the opinions they have and what they bring to the team.”

Karwan said with better leadership accountability, the military can set an example.

“The Coast Guard can be the start and then it trickles down to the civilian world and everywhere else where we a higher standard and maybe we can really change things for the better,” she said.


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