Advocates for military women are suing the Department of Defense for information about how the Naval Academy and the other military service academies recruit female students — part of a campaign, they say, to expose ongoing gender bias at the elite training grounds for the nation's officer corps.
"The military's academies largely remain boys' clubs," said Greg Jacob, the policy director at the Service Women's Action Network.
The legal dispute comes as the military approaches a January 2016 target date for integrating women into direct ground combat jobs. That was one of the last major roles that had been closed to female service members.
The advocates argue that the relatively small number of women admitted to the academies will limit the amount of top female talent available to lead future missions. They also contend that the relatively small number of women enrolled at the academies fuels a culture that fosters sexual harassment and assault.
Women were first admitted to the Naval Academy in 1976, and they now make up one-fourth of the latest class, which the academy says is the highest-ever figure. But over the same period, women have raced ahead of men in higher education and now earn almost 60 percent of bachelor's degrees at U.S. universities.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, joined the servicewomen's group to seek data from the academies. The groups hope they can use the information to diagnose why women are underrepresented and root out any discrimination.
Cmdr. John Schofield, a spokesman for the academy, declined to comment on the lawsuit but said the academy recruits without consideration of gender.
A spokesman for the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs — where the superintendent is a woman — said cadets are selected without reference to gender, and they gain opportunities by earning them.
"In the military, we are rewarded for performance," Lt. Col. Brus Vidal said. "The airplane doesn't care if you're male or female."
A spokeswoman for the Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., referred questions to the Pentagon, which declined to comment, citing a policy of not discussing pending litigation.
The Defense Department lifted the ban in 2013 on women performing ground combat jobs, so almost all career tracks are open to women, but Service Women's Action Network argues that the academies are not doing enough to prepare female officers for senior military leadership jobs. That creates what Jacob calls a "brass ceiling."
"Servicewomen today are serving in unprecedented roles that are enabling the military to be a more effective fighting force," Jacob said.
"However, service academy culture and policies are preventing the military from becoming the 21st-century leader we need it to be," he said. "In order to remain relevant, the academies must increase women's accession and leadership opportunities and actively support their advancement in the force."
But Kingsley R. Browne, a law professor at Wayne State University, said the academies are more inclusive of women than the military as a whole.
Naval Academy records show that in the past three years the rate at which it admitted women exceeded the rate at which they applied. For example, 25 percent of the class of 2018 are women and the applicant pool was made up of 22 percent women.
In the Navy, 18 percent of all sailors are women.
As long as women aren't subject to outright discrimination, concerns about the gender imbalance in the military are misguided, Browne said.
"We have a volunteer military, so people that want to join, join," said Browne, who wrote a book in 2007 arguing that women should not be allowed in combat units.
The advocates filed the lawsuit after receiving what they say was an insufficient response to federal Freedom of Information Act requests in November.
In those requests, they sought detailed records about the recruitment and admission of female students and information about any quotas on female students.
Ariela Migdal, an ACLU attorney, said it was difficult to know at which stage of the complex application process female candidates might be eliminated from consideration — of if they are put off filing an application. She said the documents the advocates are seeking would help answer that question.
The advocates also sought documentation of how the academies handle reports of sexual assault and harassment.
Sexual assault reports at the Naval Academy rose in 2013 with 15 incidents being reported, the latest year for which data is available. At the three academies, a total of 70 assaults were reported, down slightly from the year before.
Military officials and advocates have said they believe many more assaults go unreported, and that the rising reporting rates seen across the ranks indicate growing trust in the military justice system.
The Naval Academy was shaken in 2013 by allegations that three football players had sexual contact with a female midshipman at a party in Annapolis when she was too drunk to consent.
Only one of the players went to court-martial, and he was acquitted. The case drew national attention amid the debate about sexual assault in the military and the military's ability to investigate and prosecute cases, and prompted Congress to add protections for alleged victims during the process.
The groups say in the lawsuit that the Naval Academy has provided some of the records they sought, but West Point and the Air Force Academy have not.
The advocacy organizations previously collaborated on a report indicating that the Department of Veterans Affairs was approving out post-traumatic stress disorder claims related to sexual trauma at lower rates than other types of PTSD.