Will Letting Women Fight Fix Gender Inequality?

Why It's No Panacea for the Military's Ills

U.S. Military cadets run in full combat gear at West Point, New York, U.S., April 13, 2018. Mike Segar / Reuters

In 2016, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that all combat service roles would be open to women, without exception. It was a controversial move, and it gave way to grossly disparate predictions about whether the policy change was good for the military. Naysayers argued that allowing women to fight would lower physical standards, ruin camaraderie in a historically male-dominated space (breaking up the “band of brothers,” so to speak), and destroy the military’s capacity to recruit by removing the revered all-male combat unit, or, as the scholar Andrew Exum called it, “one of the last places where that most endangered of species, the alpha male, can feel at home.” Supporters, on the other hand, contended that integrating women into combat roles would enhance military capabilities, making the institution a more equal one that could, in turn, help reduce problems of sexual harassment and low rates of female recruitment and retention.

After two years, it’s still too early to draw definitive conclusions about the program. But my colleagues, retired Colonel Ellen Haring and Antonieta Rico of the Service Women’s Action Network, and I have conducted interviews with dozens of women who have served in teams attached to infantry units or graduated from infantry training classes since the policy’s implementation and found that integrating women into the infantry is no panacea for resolving wider gender inequalities and sexism within the historically male-dominated and hypermasculine institution.


Competing and contradictory expectations of women in combat plagued the policy from the start. Supporters argued that allowing women to take combat roles would provide opportunities for them to prove their equal worth, physical fitness, and professional capabilities to their male peers. At the time of the policy announcement, Senator Mazie K. Hirono, a Democratic member of the Armed Services Committee, said that the move was “a great step toward equality.” Removing the combat exclusion for women, the logic went, would lead to greater career advancement, since they would gain the

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