Removing photographs may not give a bigger picture for selection and promotion boards

Fostering greater diversity and inclusion in the Army requires deliberate actions to ensure women and minorities are adequately represented in positions of leadership and influence. The decision to remove photographs and demographic information from promotion and selection boards is unlikely to improve diversity and inclusion. The decision, instead, appears to be an emotionally charged reaction to the important and needed conversations currently occurring in the United States relative to issues of racial and, to a lesser extent, gender equity. What is required, however, are deliberate approaches to secure diversity and inclusion that confront institutional bias, that educate soldiers about implicit bias, and that cement attitudes and behaviors, which foster diversity and inclusion into the Army’s foundation.

On June 26, 2020, the secretary of Army suspended the requirement to include the DA Photo as part of officer, warrant officer, and enlisted selection boards and he directed that soldiers’ race, ethnicity, and gender information on officer and enlisted record briefs that are part of board files be redacted. The assistant secretary of the Army manpower and Reserve affairs later expanded redactions and photograph removal to selection boards for initial service accessions, assignments, military and civilian education, training, promotions, and command or key billet positions. The secretary’s action is aligned with the sentiment that removing photos and redacting race and gender information will reduce implicit, or explicit bias and make selection processes fairer.

On its face, the secretary’s action appears to be one that reduces barriers to diversity and inclusion. The secretary of the Army contended, for example, that the Army’s strength comes from its diversity and that diverse leadership is critical for mission effectiveness. Removing photographs and demographic information from promotion/selection boards, key billets’ assignments, and training selection processes, however, attempts to remedy the issues surrounding bias at the end of the process rather than at its beginning.

Research on relational demography, social categorization theory and leader-member exchange theory demonstrate that subordinates are evaluated more favorably by supervisors who perceive them as similar. Individuals’ perceptions of similarity can be influenced by seemingly benign variables such as schools attended, hometown, and religious affiliation, and by surface-level characteristics like gender, ethnicity, and race.

Research has also consistently demonstrated, for example, that white employees receive more favorable evaluations from white raters and conversely that black employees receive less favorable evaluations from white raters. As such, evaluations received by women and minorities from white male supervisors could reflect biases (implicit, or otherwise) owing to perceptions of dissimilarity, in-group or out-group status, and social categorization, which could be less favorable than the evaluations received by white male subordinates. Correspondingly, promotion boards that rely exclusively on the language communicated in performance, or academic evaluations will likely generate outcomes more favorable to subordinates who share greater similarities with supervisors.

Consequently, eliminating photos and redacting demographic information on a promotion/selection board does not help reduce any bias contained in performance evaluations, academic evaluations, or other materials relied upon to make promotion, selection, or assignment decisions. It merely creates the illusion that selection decisions will be fairer, or more merit-based.

Merit, in the context of work, conveys the notion that people are appreciated or rewarded commensurate to their efforts and their outcomes — it is a vision that power and standing are conveyed through personal effort rather than origin, or other factors. While individual merit appears to be the most appropriate tool to foster fairness, it is inadequate for improving diversity and inclusion in the Army. Soldiers, owing to their backgrounds, race, and gender, enter the Army with different lived experiences. Despite the Army’s effort to ensure equal treatment, soldiers’ backgrounds and experiences influence their behaviors, how they are perceived, and the opportunities they are provided.

Unequally provided opportunities that benefit one individual over another, in turn, influences achievement and outcomes and, hence, is not meritocratic. The military, for at least 200 years perpetuated and bolstered institutional conduct unfavorable to women and minorities and, at times, may even have operated hostile to them. Women, for example, were only admitted to U.S. military academies in 1976 and saw their first graduates in 1980. Accordingly, most individuals who served in leadership positions, or positions of standing before 1980, and many even after 1980, would have benefited from a faux meritocracy (i.e., an institution that was structured to deliver positive outcomes to them if they worked hard and were white males); this, of course, is in contrast to the fewer opportunities that would have existed, or been afforded to women and minorities.

Given historical institutional bias, and the research on relational demography and social categorization theory, relying heavily on merit as a panacea to systemic issues surrounding diversity and inclusion is flawed. Merit, blind to systemic issues of exclusion, or the challenges faced by people of different backgrounds will not improve equity, diversity, and inclusion because it does not see the whole picture. Instead, what is required are tools for better appreciating diversity, eliminating bias and making affirmative efforts to promote the selection of diverse individuals on perhaps a representational scale.

When people contemplate affirmative efforts, they often perceive it to mean race-based quotas; they are not. The 1978 Supreme Court Decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, for example, ruled that the university’s employment of racial quotas was illegal, but the court opined that employing affirmative action tools, which permitted the acceptance of more minority applicants, was constitutional. In 2016, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the previous precedent, in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas, by opining that a two-part admission process to create student body diversity was not unconstitutional.

For the Army to improve diversity and inclusion at all ranks, it must take affirmative steps to create diversity. The National Football League’s (NFL) employment of the Rooney Rule in 2003, which requires teams to interview ethnic-minority candidates to fill head coach and other senior operations vacancies, exemplifies affirmative steps toward diversity and inclusion. In the years following the NFL’s employment of the Rooney Rule, the NFL would see 14 non-white head coaches up from three in the year the rule was adopted. Although that number has been reduced to three in 2020 — the same number that existed at the start of the Rooney Rule — the NFL’s employment of affirmative steps towards diversity should be commended. The NFL’s example also demonstrates that steps to promote diversity and inclusion should endure.

Removing photographs and demographic data from promotion/selection boards, and relying strictly on the “notion of merit” to ensure greater fairness without employing affirmative efforts to improve diversity and eliminate bias in the ranks, will almost certainly result in a less diverse and less inclusive Army. Blind hiring might work for some companies (and could work for military recruiting), but blind promotions could detract from efforts to foster diversity in senior and leadership positions. We cannot blind ourselves to systemic issues of exclusion (which occur before the board even meets), or the challenges faced by our diverse population and expect greater diversity and inclusion. To be inclusive, we must do so purposefully. To be inclusive, we must embrace our differences, which begins by seeing the whole picture.

CW5 Ron Prescott is a senior legal administrator in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps; he possesses a Ph.D. in organizational psychology and is an adjunct professor for Webster University in the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of the Army or Department of Defense.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman,

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