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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

Women in the Military: Why Can't We Serve on the Front Lines?

The Defense Department recently announced new policies that will open more than 14,000 military job opportunities to women. Which seems like a great step—except that more than 200,000 positions will still remain exclusive to men, from front-line infantry positions to high-level special operations roles.

Why? According to a press release, “the department recognizes there are practical barriers that require time to resolve to ensure the services maximize the safety and privacy of all service members while maintaining military readiness.”

But others see things differently: “[According to researchers], traditional attitudes make many people both uncomfortable with the idea of women fighting and unable to handle the image of mothers coming home in body bags,” says Discovery News. They also note, “there are also concerns that women will interfere with group bonding and cohesion—the same arguments that long interfered with the integration of African Americans and gay people into the military.”

So we decided to go straight to the source: We asked women who have served in the armed forces how they feel about the decision, and their thoughts on what it will really take to achieve gender equality in the military. Here's what we found out.

Gender Equality, Job Equality

Most of the women we spoke with strongly believe that the military should be like any other job field: All opportunities should be open to both men and women. “To keep someone out of something... or restrict them when they're capable still doesn't make sense to me," explains Air Force Captain Kristen Franke. Banning women from certain jobs, she says, is as archaic as the “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” policy.

Critics, of course, have expressed concerns about women being able to do the job, particularly for front-line positions. But, according to the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), even though women aren’t technically allowed to serve in combat roles, they’ve been unofficially doing so for quite some time, particularly because in modern warfare, there is no traditional front line.

"Women may not be out kicking doors down, but they are still vulnerable to getting attacked and fighting back with the units of convoys, vulnerable bases, and out on missions," says Tarren Windham, Hospital Corpsman First Class for the Navy and Marines.

Perhaps the most important argument for maintaining gender equality at every level is that it’s necessary to truly enable women to have successful careers within the military. "Many of the positions currently banning women are necessary for career development and success,” says a SWAN representative. “SWAN has dubbed this the ‘brass ceiling’ that the combat exclusion policy places over women's advancement in the Armed Services."

Windham agrees that current policies prevent her from taking on certain positions. “Being in the medical field, I serve with the Marines,” she says. “Because of the restrictions on women on the front lines there are only so many stations I can go to. There are fewer of what I would consider cool jobs out there because of the restrictions.”

Gender Discrimination is Alive and Well

Unfortunately, though, gender equality issues in the military go beyond rules about what positions women are allowed to serve in. The individuals we spoke with were clear that gender discrimination is alive and well, and if the military can't abolish blatant sexism, they won't see equality for many more years.

Windham describes a not-atypical scenario: "Sometimes, before you even check into a command [present orders to superiors after being transferred], they will look at the orders of the incoming personnel and see that it's a woman. The first thing people start talking about is, ‘I wonder if she's hot, I wonder if she puts out, I wonder if she's fat.’”

Windham adds that she's actually been told she "shouldn't try and work outside of [her administrative duties] because that's what girls are good at." The problem is pervasive, and is often reinforced by those in upper command—a serious obstacle to overcome if the military as a whole is ever going to progress beyond these views.

Safety and Sexual Harassment

Jeannie Crosby, who served in the Air Force for 20 years, says there’s a basic issue that underlies this discrimination: respect—or lack thereof.

One of the major reasons cited for why women can't serve in some roles is the need for separate sleeping quarters, and particularly the worries about women being subject to sexual crimes. And unfortunately, these worries are still all too well-founded.

For Amanda Downs, who was a corporal in the Marines from 2007-2011, this rationale is quite a valid reason for excluding women from certain positions. Downs knows this because when she was in Military Operational Specialty School, she was raped. And she didn't say anything until a couple years after—because one of her superiors told her she would get in more trouble than the man who raped her because she was drinking underage.

Down says that until we can get a better handle on these types of crimes, we simply will not be able to safely integrate women into positions like the infantry.

“If we could progress past the point where we are now in terms of sexual assault and gender discrimination and that type of thing, [we can open positions],” she says. “That’s going to have to happen before we try to integrate [women] into the infantry.”

Looking Towards the Future

However, despite the struggle for equality, many women still find that they thoroughly enjoy their jobs in the military—and they have continued to serve our country.

Franke is happy to be a part of military branch that has 99% of jobs already open to women and has been surprised at how positive her experience has been. She says, "I didn't know what to expect coming in... and I was surprised with my generation of people. It's been really smooth and I've been extremely accepted and equal."

One thing that everyone we talked to seems to agree on is that we, as young women, can do something for these women. We can make a difference.

Franke advises us to educate ourselves. "Learn more about it. Don't let the military be this quagmire that nobody knows about,” she says. “There’s all kinds of organizations like the Women's Memorial Foundation in D.C., which opened the first memorial for women in the service. You can support things like that. It's all about education and awareness." You can also check out sources like SWAN—an organization devoted to empowering servicewomen and veterans.

In addition, it’s imperative to let the government know (via letters, phone calls, and protests) that we support changes in policy and we demand something we should have achieved a long time ago—equality. Albeit slowly, the military is moving in the right direction, and it's up to us to make sure they keep moving. These policies affect real women—women who are dedicated enough to fight for our country and defend our rights on a daily basis.

Photo courtesy of Expert Infantry.