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Gender and the US military

15 November 2017

The article at a glance

Some positive steps have been made to improve gender equality in the American military, but some simple further steps could achieve much …

Some positive steps have been made to improve gender equality in the American military, but some simple further steps could achieve much more – and that would reflect well beyond the armed forces.

Woman in the military

By Joshua Stewart, Lieutenant Colonel (US Army) & Master of Studies in Social Innovation student

Joshua Stewart
Joshua Stewart

The US military has had a complicated and sometimes troubled history with regard to gender issues, as shown by a recent Marine Corps scandal in which naked photographs of female colleagues were shared online. And while there have been some positive moves in recent years to broaden opportunities for women, some simple further steps could easily achieve more.

The announcement in December 2015 by then-Secretary of State Ashton Carter, that every military job would be open to women, should be applauded. He also doubled maternity leave to 12 weeks, increased the hours of childcare available at military bases to 14 hours per day, and mandated a “mother’s room” for every facility with more than 50 women present.

Yet while these steps should help recruit more women and send a message that women are welcome in the military, much more needs to be done to assure a gender-blind promotion programme – because the current statistics leave much to be desired.

Across all active services in the US military, women now average 20 per cent of junior level officers, 14 per cent of middle and senior officers, and seven per cent of one to four-star general and flag officers. The disparity is primarily explained by two factors: lower retention rates for women (30 per cent lower than men after ten years of service) and the exclusion of women from combat units (from which general officers are most frequently drawn).

So what can be done?

  • In the already highly centralised promotion process, it would be fairly simple to remove or redact gender (and race) identifying data such as names, he/she pronouns, and the obligatory uniformed photo from records assessed by promotion boards. Such steps would assure both women and men that promotion results are based entirely on performance.
  • Regarding the exclusion of women from combat units, the traditional stepping stone to senior rank, the tradition of selecting senior officers from only a subsection of the force is outdated and counterproductive. Why artificially reduce the pool from which to identify and advance the most talented leaders? Both women and men (as well as the military) would be better served if the most visionary leaders advanced regardless of initial specialty – combat or non-combat
  • Some argue that the military’s masculine reputation helps attract sufficient numbers of young men to fill its ranks; in this view of the military as a “rite of passage”, the inclusion of more women (or gay or transgender personnel) could undermine the appeal of a military career. However, I believe the degree of such allure is exaggerated, and that the attractions of service, patriotism, teamwork, adventure, skills training, and other benefits are more than adequate to entice young people to join the military.That said, there are real “work-life” balance issues in the military. In the Navy, for example, the primary goal is to excel at surface and submarine warfare. Excellence at those skills requires either being on or under the water, two locations not conducive to robust family life. A successful Navy career generally requires roughly 10 of 20 years at sea.So is this aspect of the military biased against women? It certainly favours people willing to spend inordinate amounts of time away from home, honing the crafts of warfare. Traditional social constructions of gender appear to make it more acceptable for men to devote intense commitment to the armed forces at the expense of other endeavors, so these conventions need challenging in order to promote greater gender balance.

Why, beyond the military, is the issue of gender equality important? Given that military members are drawn from and return to civilian life constantly, the military both reflects and influences broader US culture. So a clear-eyed understanding of gender status in the military is important to a wider audience because it may provide insights into social assumptions about men and women that are less apparent in other walks of life.

Joshua Stewart is a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army, and is currently undertaking a Master of Studies in Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge Business School, the University of Cambridge. This blog is solely the opinion of the author, and does not reflect the views of the US Army or any other branch of the US government.

This article was published on

15 November 2017.