Undoubtedly, there will be some bumps in the road as more and more women begin to take on combat roles. But the biggest test may come not just when more women are embedded alongside men on the front lines, but when more women are in charge of them. That’s because the change announced Thursday does more than just open the gates for more women to serve in combat jobs, it opens the pipeline for more women to go on to achieve leadership jobs in the military, too.
According to the Rutgers Institute for Women’s Leadership, as of 2009 women made up 15.5 percent of officers, averaged across the four military branches. And currently, some 80 percent of generals in the Army have combat experience. Spending time on the front lines is, even if unofficially, a critical stepping stone for those looking to advance their career. One need look no further than the recent attention given to Chuck Hagel’s time as a “grunt” in the Vietnam War to see how such experience stands out when it comes to nominations to higher posts.
The value given to combat experience is understandable. The more leaders can identify with the actual jobs of the people they lead, the better they can consider the front-line point of view when making decisions, budgeting resources and implementing strategy. If you’ve actually worn the shoes of the people in your organization’s most dangerous job, you’re better equipped to lead them. As a result, one hopes that allowing more women to take on combat roles will clear the way for more women in the military’s top brass.
Times may have changed a lot since Linda Bray led military police officers during the 1989 invasion of Panama, sparking a controversy over whether women should be allowed into battle. But doubts about women’s performance in combat by high-ranking veterans and discomfort by some male troops about taking orders from female superiors are sure to continue to exist in some capacity.
Panetta’s announcement, made on the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will take effect slowly. The Army and the Marines will present plans to open most jobs to women by May 15, and each service will have until January 2016 to make the case for why some positions should be listed as exceptions. As the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, wrote in a letter recommending the change, “to implement these initiatives successfully and without sacrificing our warfighting capability or the trust of the American people, we will need time to get it right.”
Surely, there will be training, policy changes and new rules that help the services navigate the increased combat roles women will be taking on. While they’re at it, the military’s top brass should prepare for the increased leadership roles women are bound to play, too—readying the culture, both among the top ranks and the lowest rung of the troops, for a greater presence of women at the helm.