A new, lengthy academic report from the University of Pittsburgh advised the Marine Corps to consider dropping gender-specific salutations such as “sir” and “ma’am” and replace them with gender-neutral identifiers to eliminate the “possibility of misgendering drill instructors,” the Marine Corps Times reported.
Marine Corps leaders are reportedly not convinced that transitioning to gender-neutral salutations would be as simple as the 739-page report suggests.
The University of Pittsburgh received $2 million to conduct the study, which examined gender-integrated recruit training in military settings. The new report made several other suggestions that the Marine Corps leadership team is still considering.
The report, which was commissioned in 2020 and published in June 2022, argued that military services have already largely stopped using gendered identifiers for training staff.
“The Army, Navy, and Coast Guard effectively de-emphasize gender in an integrated environment,” the report claimed. “Instead of saying ‘ma’am’ or ‘sir,’ recruits in these Services refer to their drill instructors using their ranks or roles followed by their last names. Gendered identifiers prime recruits to think about or visually search for a drill instructor’s gender first, before their rank or role.”
In December, Col. Howard Hall, chief of staff for Marine Corps Training and Education Command, told the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services that the transition to gender-neutral language would “take some effort.”
“Honestly, that’s not a quick fix,” said Hall. “What are [we] inculcating in our young recruits that will or will not be reinforced when they graduate and enter the fleet Marine force? So again, we want to avoid any quick-fix solutions that introduce perturbations down the line.”
The report provided several examples of the Marine Corps recruitment training representing male Marines more often than female service members.
For example, the university’s report noted that three of the five lessons on service history taught to boot camp recruits contain no mention of female Marines. Additionally, the “core values” section, which emphasized true accounts of heroism and strong leadership, only mentioned stories of male service members. However, of all the U.S. military branches, the Marine Corps has the smallest percentage of female service members.
The report argued that using gender-neutral salutations would promote more respect for female service members holding leadership positions.
“Gender-neutral identifiers are an unambiguous, impartial way to circumvent these issues,” the report stated. “Employing gender-neutral identifiers eliminates the possibility of misgendering drill instructors, which can unintentionally offend or cause discord. By teaching recruits to use gender-neutral identifiers for their drill instructors, Services underscore the importance of respecting authoritative figures regardless of gender.”
Hall noted that the Corps is updating its training material to be more inclusive of female Marines due to the report’s findings. However, he noted that doing away with “sir” and “ma’am” would be more challenging since it would create an inconsistency between salutations used by service members straight out of boot camp and Marines already in the fleet.
“All of a sudden, we change something at recruit training, and recruits start coming in and using a different identifier. It’s not something we would change overnight,” Hall told the Marine Corps Times. “Again, we’ve got a history of ‘sir, ma’am, sir, ma’am.’ If we change something at the root level, how do we make the corresponding change at the Fleet Marine Force? So it’s not ours to implement alone.”