Report | 2021

Executive Summary

The increased number of women in the Armed Forces presents a timely opportunity to examine how the changing gender makeup of the US military affects operations and culture, what potential barriers exist, and what women’s participation means for compliance with international conventions such as the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda and International Humanitarian Law (IHL).

We conducted semi-structured interviews with former enlisted personnel, active and retired commissioned officers. The interviews, along with a comprehensive review of government and military policies, independent review reports, and academic literature, allow us to illustrate how the combination of an entrenched masculinized military culture and overreliance on Special Operations Forces (SOF) present an obstacle to women’s full integration, impeding the implementation of the WPS agenda and IHL compliance.

We recommend that the US Department of Defense address three central gender-related issues—the equal and meaningful inclusion of women, restrictive physical standards, and sexual assault—to achieve the goals of the 2020 Strategic Framework and Implementation Plan (SFIP).

This research report is the third in a series of outputs of a research program at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, supported by the Principality of Liechtenstein.

Key Findings

  • While they are gaining seniority in the US military, women continue to face discrimination.
  • As women were forging paths into the military, men sought ways to differentiate themselves and maintain their dominance in the organizational hierarchy. Men and the military as an institution took three primary measures:
    • Prioritize certain physical standards such as upper body strength regardless of job requirements that advantage men over women;
    • Place a premium on combat experience for promotions curtailing women’s pathways to senior leadership positions;
    • Give Special Operations, which continue to be almost exclusively men, a central role in US military strategy.
  • The prioritization of physical strength has coincided with two other dynamics that curtail women’s opportunities in the military: greater emphasis on combat experience for climbing the ranks and heavy reliance on Special Operations that remain men-dominated.
  • Interviewees emphasized the importance of a holistically diverse force, one that goes beyond tokenism or essentialism. Tokenism is not equal nor meaningful participation and therefore prevents the tokenized, whether they are women or other minority groups, from effectively influencing decisions, tactics, and strategies.

Policy Recommendations

Our policy brief includes recommendations to increase the meaningful participation of women across the Joint Force and increase compliance with IHL.

To achieve the Department of Defense’s three SFIP objectives and increase compliance with IHL, the United States armed forces must foster an inclusive environment that encourages the participation of women. We provide recommendations to facilitate this focusing on three central issues:

Ensuring women’s meaningful participation: meaningful participation of women involves, among other things, promoting them to leadership positions, ensuring they have influence, valuing their input, and providing access to adequate childcare during all operational hours and during deployment, as well as equality in parental leave policies for men and women.

Correcting physical standards and barriers: Military leadership must improve its communication of the difference between gender-neutral occupational standards and physical fitness assessments that are gender- and age-normed because they are an administrative tool to assess overall health and fitness.

Addressing sexual assault: We particularly emphasize two intertwined steps: First, holding leaders at all levels—from company commander to four-star general—accountable for their actions and inactions. Second, we recommend greater civilian oversight over cultural norm setters such as Special Operations Forces.

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