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Female Integration Into the Armed Forces

November 22, 2016
The past year marked several historic moments for women in the United States – beyond the nomination of America’s first female presidential candidate, gender equality has been at the helm of public discourse, raising a number of societal questions from equal pay to maternity leave. Gender equality was also a focus of policies set by the United States Department of Defense (DoD). On December 3, 2015 Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter announced that the Pentagon would open all career fields in the military to women beginning in January 2016.

By Rachel Feuerstein-Simon, Fels Institute of Government, MPA ’17

 “They’ll be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry soldiers into combat,” Carter announced. “There will be no exceptions. They’ll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers, and everything else that was previously open only to men” [1].

Over the last several years the DoD has gradually integrated women into combat career fields – between 2013 and the December 2015 announcement more than 111,000 positions had been opened to women serving in the military, yet nearly 220,000 positions were still closed to females [2]. The incremental integration of women into combat career fields enabled DoD leadership to research and analyze data and feedback about the successes and failures of individual policies in real time. The findings of these studies ultimately resulted in the lifting of any barriers for individuals to serve based on gender. The data suggested that opening all areas of the military to women would lead to a stronger DoD, enhancing the military’s ability to achieve its mission of protecting the United States.

Ahead of the curve of these policy decisions, was the Air Force who at the time of the decision had only six career fields closed to women (all of the previously closed career fields were highly specialized combat units). With the opening of the remaining six career fields, one of the biggest concerns raised was about the physical standards and tests necessary to serve in these combat units, more specifically if the standards would be lowered to accommodate women. On January 6, 2016, Secretary of the Air Force, Deborah Lee James released the Air Force’s plan for female integration. Dispelling any myths of lowered standards, the plan states “there will be no quotas, critical mass or special preferences based on gender. The Air Force has not changed, raised or lowered standards as part of opening up our battlefield airmen career fields to women. The mental and physical standards in place prior to opening to women will be the exact same standards in place and in use after we open the career fields to women. Any airman or recruit wishing to enter these [battlefield airman] career fields (regardless of gender) will be accessed and qualified using the currently validated standards” [3].

This summer I interned at the Pentagon in the division of the Secretary of the Air Force, Manpower and Reserve Affairs (SAF MR), contributing to policy that affects 650,000 uniformed and civilian Airmen in the areas of manpower, military, and civilian personnel. SAF MR is responsible for setting a wide range of policies connected to Air Force personnel, ranging from health policies that determine Airmen readiness to serve, to the processes for moving Airmen into active duty and everything in between. And in considering female integration into combat units, personnel policies are a key in ensuring success through the recruitment and retention.

Interning with SAF MR gave me unique insight into the critical detail that the Pentagon uses when setting policy, and an understanding of the conversations that take place in developing policies that affect people.

These conversations and details are most important for the development of robust recruitment strategies to ensure that the most capable and qualified women, the first to serve in these specialized units, are successful. And beyond the recruitment of top talent, policies must ensure that women are retained. These policies are arguably most important, as they can determine if the environment that women are integrating into is one that accepts, as opposed to just tolerates women. As the integration plan stated: “the success of gender integration will take time and requires a focus on standards, policy, education and engaged leadership at all levels across the total force.”

As the largest employer in the world with nearly four million active duty, national guard and reserve and civilian employees, the DoD can be seen as a microcosm for society at large. The issues present with the broader public are the same as those within the DoD and for this reason can be used as petri dish for effective policies and decision making beyond those of national security.

References 

  [1] December 3, 2015. [Online]. Available: http://www.defense.gov/News/Article/Article/632536/carter-opens-all-military-occupations-positions-to-women. [Accessed: July 31, 2016]. 

  [2] ibid

  [3] March 10, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://www.airforcetimes.com/story/military/2016/03/10/air-force-women-combat-jobs/81594274/. [Accessed: July 31, 2016].

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  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.

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