It’s Time for G.I. Jane: Women Advance Into Combat Positions

To help U.S. women achieve promotion to the military’s highest ranks, the Pentagon has opened more than 14,000 combat-related roles to women serving in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, breaking the long-held policy contained in the 1994 Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule of excluding them from jobs that could put them in harm’s way.

According to Capt. Kenneth J. Barrett, the former acting director of the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity and current chief diversity officer at General Motors, women have been serving in combat-related roles for many years, taking on a variety of roles in Afghanistan and Iraq. These changes by the DoD are simply mirroring what is actually occurring in the combat zone.

“There were women who were working at the battalion level but not actually assigned to them,” Barrett said. “This pilot program DoD is undertaking is to ultimately validate or provide a proof of concept of the roles women undertake or are already doing. Additionally, the services continue to look at areas or occupational specialties that could be further opened to women, beyond those already opened.”

Barrett thinks the services understand the talent they have on hand in the female population. “The reality is, more and more women are getting not only more college degrees, but more advanced degrees, including technical degrees,” he said. “The armed services want to be able to compete for that technological expertise and can’t afford to ignore 50 percent of the population.”

In April 2010, Barrett, as the Navy’s diversity director, was part of a policy change that allowed women to serve on submarines. Implementing the policy change began by assigning three female officers in eight different crews of guided-missile attack and ballistic missile submarines. The assignments involved two submarines on the East Coast and two on the West Coast. Living space that required no modification is available aboard these platforms.

“When you make changes like this, you have to ask yourself, ‘Am I getting the best and brightest talent into the right positions to effectively achieve the mission?’” Barrett said. “Obviously at the end of the day, you have to ask if I have achieved what is intended and improved operational capability. I would say, when you look at the women who have recently arrived to the submarine force, the answer is clearly yes.”

Under the DoD’s new pilot program, female officers and non-commissioned officers will be assigned to combat units below the brigade level. The new jobs within combat battalions are in personnel, intelligence, logistics, signal corps, medical and chaplaincy. The Army is also opening jobs that were once entirely closed to women, such as mechanics for tanks and artillery and rocket launcher crew members.

On the other hand, the Ground Combat Exclusion Policy is still in effect. Women will continue to be prohibited from direct involvement in combat units and special operations units. According to the publication the Army Times, 30 percent of U.S. Army jobs will remain restricted to men.

The policy change aims to bring women closer to parity with their male peers in eligibility for occupational specialties and positions that are required to be eligible for promotion to the top ranks, since combat experience is a plus on a service resume.

“All of our recruitment and promotional programs are gender-neutral,” said Stephanie Miller, director of diversity management for the DoD. “We’re looking for skill sets and making sure everyone has access to the training needed to compete.”

While all services provide equal opportunities across the board, Miller says the DoD recognizes the difficulty in retaining women and the unique challenges of being a woman in combat. In recognition of this, the services have created programs such as Career Intermission, which allows service members — regardless of gender — a break in service to be able to focus on other personal goals. The services also offer affinity groups such as Women’s Symposium and Academy Women, and often connect women to mentors and sponsors with similar backgrounds.

But regardless of the resources available to women, war is war and they face danger just like their male counterparts. According to the Pentagon, 144 women have been killed in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, while 853 were wounded. For the first time in American history, a substantial number of the combat wounded were women. In the future, women may be on the front lines, but better protected.

The U.S. Marines intend to send female officers to infantry training, but strictly for research purposes. For now no women will be assigned to a direct ground combat unit. Further, the Marines are developing gender-neutral physical standards based on combat tasks, such as setting up and taking apart heavy combat equipment and marching 20 kilometers with 70 pounds of combat gear.

“We want to provide the best training we can to those who serve our nation,” said Juliet Beyler, acting director of officer and enlisted personnel management for the DoD. “We’re committed to pursuing the elimination of gender-restricted policies. We want to make sure we lift any barriers to allowing anybody to serve at their highest potential.”

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has directed the services to update him in six months on efforts to pursue gender-neutral physical standards, an assessment of positions newly opened for women and identification of any further positions that can be opened.

Ladan Nikravan is an associate editor of Diversity Executive magazine. She can be reached at lnikravan@diversity-executive.com.