Since the military is a made up of mostly males, women who serve typically have few role models. Senior Amy Kramer, an ROTC member who has had a female leader her entire time at Duke, recognized her experience was different—and wanted to examine the impact this had.

Kramer, a Robertson Scholar majoring in public policy and political science, wrote her senior thesis on the influence of female leadership in Army ROTC programs nationally, which produced results that the U.S. military plans to explore further and may affect policy change nationwide. She explained that she got the idea from noticing how her leader’s mentorship included extra sensitivity to gender perspectives.

“It was nothing too dramatic but a lot of subtle things that I thought were unique,” she said. “I wanted to know if that was just the one female leader at Duke or if there is something unique about the female presence. I wanted to know if there was a national trend.”

Kramer’s project focused on professors of military science who serve as leaders for the ROTC programs at universities. Of the 275 programs in the country, only 25 are headed by women.

She examined how competent the cadets viewed their leaders to be, since previous literature indicated that women in traditionally male roles are viewed as less competent. Another question was whether women received higher-quality mentorship under female leaders. Finally, she looked at the cadets’ confidence levels.

Kyle Beardsley, associate professor of political science and Kramer’s thesis advisor, noted that Kramer’s research is timely in continuing the conversation around gender issues. 

“It relates to a lot of debates in political science about what the potential for a higher proportion of women in the Armed Services could mean,” he said. 

To pursue the topic, Kramer first had to get permission from the chief of research at the U.S. Army Cadet Command in Fort Knox to survey cadets in North Carolina. Since many cadets in North Carolina meet once a year in March to do a training exercise, she wanted to survey them there and examine trends.

The chief responded that they loved her research questions and wanted her to be able to ask them, which surprised Kramer.

“Cadet Command had dismissed the impact of leadership on cadets for years,” she said. “They had just never asked any questions. It was not the most significant variable to get more people in program.”

The chief said, however, that she couldn’t do the survey for North Carolina because the sample size would be too small, jeopardizing the anonymity of the female leaders. Instead, he told her that she could administer the survey nationally to every senior cadet in the country. The questions were administered on a secure online platform from April to June this year, which Kramer then ran regression analyses on.  

Contrary to her hypothesis, Kramer found no statistically significant positive benefit of female leadership for female cadets, which she noted was likely because of the small sample size. Although she surveyed the entire nation, fewer than 100 female cadets had a female leader last year and the overall survey response rate was 54 percent.

However, she did find that female cadets perceived lower quality mentorship from their male leaders and were more likely to believe their leadership team did not have an interest in their success.  In addition, female cadets under male leaders were less confident in their ability to succeed as platoon leaders and Army officers.

“They indicated they were less confident than their male peers about their ability to have a family and successful career,” Kramer said.

She noted that this may be a reason why women often leave the military after they have a family.

Kramer showed these results to a female officer at Fort Knox where she was interning for the summer. Then, the officer gave her access to a database that included more information on every senior cadet in the country.

This included the national cadet ranking, called the Order of Merit List, in which each cadet is scored on factors like GPA, leadership experiences and physical fitness scores. Last year, there were 5,344 cadets, so they were rated from 1 to 5,344.

Even though differences between men and women had been standardized, Kramer found that female cadets in programs with male leaders were 244 points lower than their male peers on average. She discovered that this was due significantly to the male leaders ranking the female cadets lower than their male peers.

“That was the somewhat controversial finding,” she said. “The good moral of the story is when briefing all of this to military officers at Fort Knox, instead of telling me the limitations of this, they were like, this is something that may be an anomaly or may indicate a more serious trend.”

Kramer presented the results to civilian and military staff at Cadet Command, who agreed to continue gathering data on her questions. This could increase the information on female leaders, possibly revealing positive benefits of their leadership that her study was too small to definitively determine.

She noted that the military officers she worked with were receptive and willing to support her examining these questions, which she wasn’t certain would be the case given the controversy surrounding gender in the military.

“It was the opposite impression that most people have of the Army,” she said. “They’re helping me hopefully be part of implementing some solution in the future.”

Some of her policy recommendations so far include more implicit bias training and more structured leader mentorship programs.   

Kramer, who was also named a Schwarzman Scholar Tuesday, has always been interested in gender equality but began looking at it as a strategic opportunity for defense and national security fields during her sophomore year.

“I’m always focused not on programs to integrate women just for fairness, but how can female talent be leveraged for operational benefit? What can women do that men can’t?” she said.  

She noted that the most rewarding part of her research was producing a product that has the potential to make real policy change and improve people’s experiences in ROTC programs.

In the future, she hopes to continue the research, possibly by exploring programs where cadets have had positive experiences and working to figure out what those schools have in common.

Beardsley explained that Amy is unique in her ability to think creatively about solutions to issues. Instead of relying on existing data to answer her questions, she sought more information with courage and confidence. 

“Amy is an ideal scholar-practitioner in the sense that she is a really great researcher, and she also has a really good understanding about what policy improvements need to happen and is able to combine those in a way that is really rare,” he said.