Chief Naval Personnel Says Removing Promotion Photos Has Hurt, Rather Than Help, Diversity Goals

In an effort to prevent discrimination and unconscious bias during promotions, then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper issued a military-wide directive barring the use of photos in promotion boards last summer. Now, a year later, the chief of naval personnel Vice Adm. John Nowell Jr. says the change has had the opposite effect. According to military.com, Nowell says that removing the photos has instead hurt the Navy’s diversity goal.

Vice Adm. John Nowell Jr.

“I think we should consider reinstating photos in selection boards,” said Nowell during a panel discussion on diversity at the annual Sea Air Space conference earlier this week, according to military.com. He said evidence can be found in promotion board data from the past five years, though the Navy has not released the data Nowell was referring to. Nonetheless, he told the panel that “we can show you where, as you look at diversity, it went down with photos removed.”

Prior to Esper’s military-wide directive last summer, the Army had already been studying the issue and had ran an experiment that included two promotion boards — one that included photos and one that didn’t.

“From taking a careful look at the data we collected from that experiment, our study finds that when you remove the [Department of Army] photo … voters took less time to cast the votes on each individual file, and then the outcomes for minorities and women improved,” said Col. Carl Wojtaszek, director of the U.S. Army Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis, at the time, according to military.com.

According to Nowell, however, that doesn’t seem to be the case for the Navy, nor does it seem to be the case for the Marine Corps, according to Brig. Gen. A.T. Williamson, director of the Manpower Plans and Policy Division for the Marine Corps. According to military.com, Williams said the Marines are “really looking at reinstating the photos” as well.

“We’re very clear with our language to boards that we want them to consider diversity across all areas,” Nowell said today. “I think having a clear picture just makes it easier.”

As noted by military.com, the Navy had previously removed photos from its promotion board process in 2016, only to bring them back two years later for the same reason: board members said they were helpful.

In the meantime, as branches debate the value of photos in promotional boards, officers remain less diverse than the eligible civilian population across all military branches, with women and people of color all being underrepresented, according to Department of Defense diversity data from December 2020.