The Society for the
Study of Social Issues

New roles for women in the U.S. military

10 February 2012

Hidden behind tastier media stories on the U.S. presidential election was a great bit of news for gender equality in the U.S. military. Yesterday, the Pentagon announced that women’s roles in the field of combat would be updated across all areas of the armed forces. The roles which fall somewhat unequally between the different branches of the military include technical, artillery, and armored vehicle services that are more closely involved in front-line combat.

The recognition of the need for more integration of women in the armed forces has been strengthened by the growing reliance of the U.S. military on female soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. An article in the New York Times in August 2009 said that in Iraq, “the fight was on every base and street corner, and as the conflict grew longer and more complicated, the all-volunteer military required more soldiers and a different approach to fighting. Commanders were forced to stretch gender boundaries, or in a few cases, erase them altogether.” Some 220,000 women, 11% of the total personnel, have fought in those campaigns since 2001.

While the wars and their consequences have been terrible for many, the opportunities for women to advance in a male-dominated career have been greatly improved. Polls have shown that a majority of Americans support an expansion of combat duties for women and yet the reality is that many other countries in the world are decades ahead.

Just next door in Canada, women have served in combat roles in the military since 1989. Both Norway and Finland had already broken the barrier in the eighties and now have equal opportunities laws ensuring that women can serve in all combat positions. Both have been notable for extensive studies leading up to the changes which showed that integration does not negatively affect the performance of military units. Among other Nato countries, Denmark, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Israel, and Switzerland allow women to serve in combat positions.

The U.S. Department of Defense press release suggests that a new trajectory for women in the U.S. military is possible. According to its “vision”, it “is committed to removing all barriers that would prevent service members from rising to the highest level of responsibility that their talents and capabilities warrant.”

Alex Ingrams
SPSSI Policy Coordinator

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