Commentary | Sept. 2, 2021

Creating more opportunities for women to serve underway

By Chief Warrant Officer 4 Allyson Conroy

Women have served vital roles in the Coast Guard dating back to its predecessor services. Women filled the role as lighthouse keepers in the Lighthouse Service; during World War II women served as members of the Women’s Reserve – SPARS; and for nearly 50 years, they have served in the regular Coast Guard active duty and reserve ranks. Women have served aboard cutters over the past four decades, and today the service continues to increase opportunities for women to serve underway. 
“Many of our older cutters were built before women served on afloat platforms in the Coast Guard, at that time there wasn’t a need to consider accommodations for women,” said Chief Petty Officer Ramona Mason, the Coast Guard’s enlisted women afloat coordinator within the Office of Enlisted Personnel Management (EPM-2). “Now that those cutters are being decommissioned and replaced by newer cutters, we are making berthing arrangements for women to serve as part of their permanent party crew.”

The Office of Cutter Forces is also working with EPM in an effort to create more opportunities for enlisted women afloat. One avenue has been through a new policy change for the 65-foot inland river tenders (WLR) that allows women to be assigned aboard those cutters that were previously staffed with all-male crews.

“This new policy allows women to move through spaces that were previously restricted in order to use a common space or the head,” Mason said. 

Coast Guard Cutter Hawser, a 65-foot Small Harbor Tug, transits north on the ice-covered Hudson River near Albany, New York, Jan. 5, 2018. The Hawser is being used on the Hudson River to escort vessels and create an open channel for commercial traffic in support of Operation - Reliable Energy for Northeast Winters (RENEW). (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Steve Strohmaier)Another recent change Mason is excited about is integrating three 65-foot icebreaking harbor tugs (WYTL) in New York. She said the 65-foot New York-based Cutters Hawser, Line, and Wire will be converted to create a berthing area for a mixed-gender crew.  

“We’ve assigned women to these cutters in command cadre positions in the past, however, assigning a third class boatswains mate aboard is new,” Mason said. “For the first time, a woman in a non-command position has received orders to the Coast Guard Cutter Wire.” 

In an effort to further expand women afloat opportunities, the Coast Guard has authorized a structural conversion for a minimum of three 140-foot ice-breaking tugs (WTGB). These conversions will create two separate berthing spaces for enlisted members as well as separate heads. 

While the completion date for these conversions is in the works, Mason is encouraging women to apply for these billets now. “We know there’s a desire for women to serve within the 140-foot ice-breaking tug fleet, the question is: How much? If there appears to be a strong desire, there could be opportunities to support the conversion of additional hulls.”

To effectively communicate these additional opportunities for women to serve at sea, Lt. Corey Engel, the Aids to Navigation (AtoN) Platform Manager in the Office of Cutter Forces and Master Chief Petty Officer Michael Ellis, the Boatswain Mate Rating Force Master Chief, traveled to multiple units through the AtoN community to engage in two-way communication to introduce the new policy to the fleet. 

“Culturally we were already there,” Ellis said. “When I announced the policy change for the 65-foot inland river tenders at an all hands, I didn’t get much of a response. I was a little confused at first. After a couple of conversations I realized their response was not to the policy, it was more in the lines of ‘Well of course, this isn’t news, Master Chief.’ It was then that I realized the policy is definitely behind where the fleet is culturally. This policy change was an easy fix to allow women to serve aboard cutters that were not available to them before.”

Now comes the job of integrating women on these cutters, which Mason says will not be difficult. The desire exists both from women wanting to serve afloat and the units wanting to integrate. 

So how does she make this happen? If a cutter has two racks, Mason works with the assignment officers to assign two women to the cutter. By doing this, two female petty officers are able to receive rated sea time, greatly improving their ability to advance. “The service realized it needed to do something to ensure that women who earned an afloat billet received that opportunity,” Mason said. “Our operational and engineering ratings require rated sea time in order to advance. It is my job to coordinate with the assignment officers and find available underway billets for our enlisted female members.”

As a result of these additional afloat opportunities, women now have the opportunity to serve throughout nearly the entire AtoN fleet.  We now have the chance to assign junior enlisted women afloat to help build their leadership skills and experience to serve in future command positions. 

“Historically, the AtoN mission, especially on the Western Rivers, has been difficult for women to get into,” Engel said of Coast Guard’s 65-foot inland river tenders fleet. “Of the 18 river tenders, only two could accommodate women. This change in policy will provide additional opportunities for women within the AtoN mission set and the Western Rivers region.”

Serving aboard the 65-foot inland river tenders provides women the opportunity to gain experience in the AtoN afloat community, leading to future command opportunities. Engel and Ellis both say this will be extremely important once the Waterways Commerce Cutters (WCC) are online – which will all have berthing arrangements capable of supporting women afloat. 

Seaman Kristine Kearny, a crewmember aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Sherman, dons a harness in preparation for surface swimmer training Jan. 12, 2017. Sherman, homeported in Honolulu, Sherman, homeported in Honolulu, has a number of surface swimmers aboard, and each one is required to enter the water, swim 25 yards, rescue the cutter’s Oscar by conducting a buddy tow to the cutter’s small boat, and swim back to the cuter. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Warrant Officer Allyson E.T. Conroy)“Women have an appetite for getting underway early in their career, more so than their male counterparts,” Ellis said. “These new opportunities for women will ensure the Coast Guard is able to fulfil our commitment to our people by providing a platform where they can continue to complete their underway deck watch officer requirements and thus provide more advancement opportunity. It also provides an AtoN afloat career path for both men and women.”

Mason impresses that jobs are “awarded” to members with a lot of thought and coordination. “I’ve heard people say that it is easier to assign a woman to a land unit than a sea unit because of her gender, and that is simply not the case. If you are a high performer and you have earned an afloat billet, I’ll do whatever I can to get you that job.”

Mason says she’s been able to increase assigning women to afloat billets by 10% during her two-year tenure as the Enlisted Women Afloat Coordinator. 

“This past assignment year, working with the assignment officers, I achieved getting all of the enlisted women who earned an underway billet orders to sea,” Mason said. “I have commands and officers-in-charge calling me all of the time saying they have two racks available, they want to integrate their crew.”

As an operations specialist, Mason served three and a half years underway aboard the cutter Mellon early in her career and says she is very thankful that she did. “I knew I needed rated sea time in order to advance, and I am glad I did it early in my career. At this point in my life with a spouse and children, I know that if I were called upon to get underway again, that I could, because I know what to expect.”

Mason encourages members to get underway early in their career. She says you don’t always know what life will throw at you – but getting underway for the first time as a senior petty officer may be a bit intimidating. 

“The best way to break any perceived negative assumptions [of getting underway] is to simply experience the joys and pride one feels serving at sea,” Mason said. “The current pace at which the Coast Guard is making strides to improve the quality of life underway is exponential compared to years past.” 

“There’s a lot of opportunities for women to serve afloat,” Mason continued. “Even if an afloat unit remains male only, put it on your e-resume and I’ll advocate on your behalf. All of our new cutters coming online – the Fast Response Cutters, Offshore Patrol Cutters and National Security Cutters – have opportunities for women to serve onboard. So will future cutters like the Waterways Commerce Cutter and the Polar Security Cutter. The service is making strides to create more opportunities for women to serve in afloat billets and it’s my job to get these women into those positions.”