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 necessary combat experience to secure high-ranking positions such as commandant of the Marine Corps or chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In addition, proponents of the policy change argued that women would offer special attributes as infantry soldiers that would enhance the capacity of the infantry. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, women provide “a capability that, when added to and employed by a combat force, significantly increases the combat potential of that force and thus enhances the probability of successful mission accomplishment.” As demonstrated by the all-female Engagement and Cultural Support Teams, units attached to Special Forces and infantry units, women have unique capabilities when it comes to gathering intelligence and conducting searches in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where there are deep levels of gender segregation. 

Our interviews revealed that the policy put women in a double bind: while trying to establish themselves as equal to men, they were also required to emphasize their unique qualifications as women. In short, they needed to appear both equal and different, to both blend in and stand out.

For example, in order to be seen as equal, women in the infantry felt pressure to not only meet but surpass the standard physical requirements—in other words, they needed to be considered exceptional in order to be seen as equal to men. As one woman explained, “I always felt like I had to do one more or one better than whatever the guy was doing, just to show him that I was, not equal, but not less than.” As another woman similarly expressed, “If the guys were carrying two two-by-fours, I was carrying three. If they were up at seven, I was up at six thirty. If they were in the gym for an hour, I was in the gym for an hour and a half. I always had to do more.” Even when women succeeded in surpassing men in physical standards, the men tended to downplay the women’s achievements. “If I can do more pushups than men, they say, ‘Oh, that’s because you are lighter.’ If I do more sit-ups, they say, ‘Women have a better body type for sit-ups,’ or, ‘You have a shorter torso than me.’” If women were seen as “too fit,” they experienced backlash, including social isolation or being characterized as a showoff. “Men don’t want to be outperformed by women, especially in a field that has been restricted, that they’ve told for so long that we can’t do it,” one woman explained. “So when a woman comes in and can do it and does it better than them, [men] don’t want to accept that.”

The policy put women in a double bind: while trying to establish themselves as equal to men, they were also required to emphasize their unique qualifications as women. In short, they needed to appear both equal and different, to both blend in and stand out.

Social pressure was equally difficult to navigate. Several women talked about wanting to be sure that they were seen as “cool and fun” but also “tough and professional.” They always had to walk a fine line between being “too soft” or being “kind of like a bitch.” Several women expressed serious doubts as to whether they could ever be accepted as equals by their male peers. One woman talked about a male army leader who made it clear that he disagreed with the policy shift. “He had those firm rooted beliefs that [women] did not belong out there,” she said. “It didn’t matter what we were doing, it didn’t matter what value we added. We were women and we were somehow invading his territory.”

Throughout their time in the infantry, women felt that they were being watched more carefully than men. And if they made an error, their performance was seen as a reflection on all women. One female soldier told us, “You are setting the standard for females. All the males that you are in class with right now, they are going to see you and their first impression about females in the military is going to come from you.” If they failed, they “would be the anecdotal evidence that women don’t belong here.”


On top of the double standard that women in the infantry continue to face, there are a number of structural barriers to integrating women in the military  that perpetuate gender disparities within the institution. For example, in 2016, the Army designed a program called Leaders First, in which women were assigned to the brigade in either Fort Bragg and Fort Hood in order to create the critical mass of female infantry officer leaders that were needed before enlisted women could be fully integrated into combat roles. But this policy makes two incorrect assumptions: that creating a critical mass of women would provide a more open environment for the first cohort of women to successfully integrate, and that female infantry officers would be able to lead the way in ensuring the successful integration of enlisted women. Unfortunately, the idea that a “critical mass” of female leaders in a workplace can inspire cultural change is hotly contested. Most available research indicates that broader leadership training and commitment to diversity, rather than integrating “token” women, are key. What’s more, Leaders First seems to put the onus on junior female infantry officers to initiate efforts to integrate women rather than on the wider leadership. It also fails to recognize the need for both changes within the top brass and for cultural education.

In the end, Leaders First received more interest from female officers than expected, which created all sorts of problems. Women had to compete with their male counterparts for limited platoon leadership roles, which are essential for officers at this stage in their careers. Women now have to face lengthy waits to assume such positions, and when they do, they are accused of receiving preferential treatment. As Ellen Haring explained in the Army Times, the Leaders First policy was causing confusion and tension and thus “acting as a barrier to women who want to enter combat arms and is causing resentment among male soldiers.”

Another structural issue is the way in which sexual assault is handled in the military. It was expected that allowing women to take combat roles would lead to a reduction of sexual violence. The logic behind this reasoning was that an imbalanced gender ratio, with men outnumbering women, creates a macho culture that considers, and thus treats, women as inferior. This way of thinking then leads to high levels of sexual violence. As former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey noted, “When you have one part of the population that is designated as warriors and another part that’s designated as something else, I think that disparity begins to establish a psychology that in some cases led to that environment [of sexual harassment and sexual assault]. I have to believe, the more we can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally.”

U.S. Brigadier General Diana Holland, the first female Commandant of Cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, January 5, 2016.
Mike Segar / Reuters

The issue lies not in recruiting more women but in fixing the broken reporting mechanism. Although it is not possible to provide a comprehensive picture of the epidemic of sexual violence and assault within the U.S. military, a few statistics signal the magnitude of the problem: one in four women experience harassment in the U.S. military, while 1 in 15 men do. Of those who have been assaulted, a quarter of women and a third of men, are attacked by someone in their chain of command. And yet, under the military justice system, if survivors of sexual assault want to trigger an official investigation into an incident, commanders must be notified of the complaint and be part of the investigation—even in cases where they themselves or their peers have committed the offense. It is not surprising, then, that Department of Defense data indicate that sexual assault rates are at an all-time high while conviction rates are at an all-time low. Only 2.7 percent of sexual assault reports lead to a conviction. Furthermore, the majority of men and women who report assault or harassment experience a negative reprisal: a third of victims are discharged within seven months of making the report. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has pushed for passage of the Military Justice Improvement Act, which would “professionalize how the military prosecutes serious crimes like sexual assault” by moving toward having independent military prosecutors handle sexual assault cases, rather than someone within the existing chain of command.

Moreover, there are disappointing signs that this first generation of women in combat is facing the same pattern of sexual assault and harassment as have women across various services. Within the first year of their integration, a number of U.S. Army drill sergeants at Fort Benning were suspended after a female trainee raised sexual assault allegations against them. None of the interviewees spoke directly about these allegations, but several referenced a culture that is permissive toward sexual assault and harassment. Women described sexual assault training as weak and said it was treated as an irritation rather than an important aspect of leadership training. Women also described an atmosphere that required them to constantly monitor their behavior to ensure men did not get “the wrong impression” and assume they were welcoming sexual advances or were drawing attention to their bodies. One woman explained how, during field training, men often stripped down to their underwear when changing or cleaning; however, she worried about the signals she might send if she did the same. “I don’t want them looking at me or looking at my legs and being like, ‘She’s here for the wrong reasons. She’s trying to look sexy in the field. She’s not focused on training,’” she said. “Figuring out how to keep yourself clean and change your clothes as discreetly as possible is something that I don’t think the men have to deal with.”

In sum, although Carter’s policy of integrating women into combat roles is certainly a step in the right direction, enforcing gender equality is not a silver bullet for reducing sexual violence, increasing the number of female military leaders, or enhancing combat capacity for the U.S. military. Expecting women to be both equal and exceptional, and refusing to make institutional changes to acknowledge historical sexism, sets up a promising policy for failure. If the army is the adaptable and modern institution it sets out to be, it must not only enlist women but listen to them and then make the necessary changes to the institution that are required for real equality to take hold.

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  • MEGAN H. MACKENZIE is Senior Lecturer in Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney and the author of Beyond the Band of Brothers: The U.S. Military and the Myth that Women Can't Fight.


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