It’s been a big couple of weeks for women in the military.
Last week, female soldiers began formally moving into jobs in previously all-male battalions, a program that will later go Army-wide. The move is a result of rule changes following a February report that opened some 14,000 new positions to women in critical jobs much closer to the front lines. However, some 250,000 combat jobs still remain officially closed to them.
The same week, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D, Calif.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D, N.Y.) introduced legislation in both houses of Congress that would encourage the “repeal of the Ground Combat Exclusion policy” for women in the armed forces. Then this Wednesday, two female U.S. Army reservists filed a lawsuit that seeks to overturn the remaining restrictions on women in combat, saying they limit “their current and future earnings, their potential for promotion and advancement, and their future retirement benefits.” (A Pentagon spokesperson told Bloomberg News that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta “is strongly committed to examining the expansion of roles for women in the U.S. military, as evidenced by the recent step of opening up thousands of more assignments to women.”)
One of the arguments behind both the lawsuit and the new legislation is that the remaining restrictions hurt women’s opportunities for advancement.
Advocates for women in the military say that even if women like Gen. Ann Dunwoody have reached four-star general status, she and women like her without official front-line combat experience apparently haven’t been considered for the military’s very highest posts. “If women remain restricted to combat service and combat service support specialties, we will not see a woman as Commandant of the Marine Corps, or CENTCOM commander, or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” writes Greg Jacob, policy director for the Service Women’s Action Network. “Thus women in the military are being held back simply because they are women. Such an idea is not only completely at odds with military ethics, but is distinctly un-American.”
Women have been temporarily “attached” to battalions for the last decade; still, allowing women to formally serve in combat operations could help to break down the so-called brass ceiling.
Another way to break down the ceiling would be to consider talented women for top military leadership positions, whether or not they’ve officially held certain combat posts. Presidents have chosen less-senior officers for Joint Chiefs roles, which are technically staff jobs, wrote Laura Conley and Lawrence Korb, a former assistant defense secretary in the Reagan administration and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, in the Armed Forces Journal last year. They argue that putting a woman on the Joint Chiefs would help the military grapple with rising sexual harassment issues, bring nontraditional expertise (which women have developed because of some of their role exclusions) at a time when that’s increasingly critical, and send the signal that the military is not only open to women, but puts no barriers in their way.
Yes, putting women in combat roles beyond those that have been recently formalized would require many adjustments, both logistical and psychological, for the military and for its male troops. There are plenty of women who may not be interested in these jobs, or who do not meet the physical demands required of them. And gradual change may be prudent. The recent openings are a start; Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno’s acknowledgement last week that if women are allowed into infantry, they will at some point probably go through Ranger School, is encouraging.
But at a time when experience like the infantry is reportedly crucial for getting top posts, it’s easy to see how official and sizeable policy changes are needed in order to create a system that lets talented women advance to the military’s highest echelons. In any field where there are real or perceived limitations for women’s advancement, it’s that much harder to attract the best and brightest. Indeed, the Military Leadership Diversity Commission recommended last March that the services end combat exclusion policies for women, along with other “barriers and inconsistencies, to create a level playing field for all qualified service members.” As the commission chairman, Retired Air Force Gen. Lester L. Lyles, told the American Forces Press Service at the time, “we know that [the exclusion] hinders women from promotion.”
For the military to achieve the diverse workforce it seeks, interested and capable women should either not face exclusions, or the culture of the armed forces needs to change so that women without that particular experience can still reach the very top. Both changes may be difficult, but the latter is extraordinarily so. Ending the restrictions is the shortest route to giving the military the best pool of talent possible and the most diverse viewpoints for leading it.
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