U.S. Army Must Revoke Policies Detrimental to Women

September 3, 2018

September 3, 2018: In a message to members of the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), CEO Lydia C. Watts sets forth current policies creating obstacles to equality for women in the U.S. Armed Services:

August 26 is Women’s Equality Day in the U.S., which is a great time to reflect on how much of SWAN’s work is about fighting for the equal treatment of women and men in the military. You may think, 'well, surely we are already equal'; but there is still so much to be done in order to truly ensure that women are seen, heard and treated as equal members of the U.S. military, just as essential to our national defense as men.

It is no secret that the military is having a tough time recruiting capable young people to join the Armed Services. We hear lots of reasons why, including the obesity epidemic. To meet recruitment numbers at necessary levels to staff all branches of the military, the military must recruit more women. But the military is far behind many civilian sectors in making service more appealing to women: high rates of sexual harassment and assault, a misogynistic and male-dominated culture that is seen as hostile to women, and workplace policies that are not family-friendly, deter women from joining the military. All these factors announce loud and clear that women are “less than” their male counterparts. Nothing declares it louder than the continued resistance to allowing women to fully integrate into combat jobs in all branches of the military.

In January 2013, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the removal of the policy barring women from serving in ground  combat jobs and ordered the services to fully integrate women into combat arms units. This was a great victory, and SWAN – among other organization working to lift this ban – thought we might see an end to this old vestige of gender discrimination. However, the services continued to impose or maintain policies that perpetuated gender discrimination. SWAN learned about the "Leaders First" policy and the Marine Corps' plan to continue sex-segregated boot camp, which effectively keeps women from successfully entering the combat jobs promised as 'fully' open to women.

The Leaders First policy asserts that enlisted women will only be allowed to enter combat jobs at units where there are 2 women leaders – defined as a female officer or NCO- already in place. This has effectively barred women from entering combat jobs in almost all states in the National Guard and segregated active duty women to limited military installations. This policy also impacts the career of the women leaders, whose promotions, positions and assignments are limited  by this policy as well.

Segregated boot camp in the Marines means that women and men are trained separately, with different physical requirements and with a different level of training and expectations. This only serves to fuel the perception that women Marines are weaker, not as capable, and “coddled” as compared to their male counterparts. Women are quite literally seen as “lesser” Marines.

Women interested in joining combat arms and the military in general would rightfully express hesitation because of stories they hear from other women who were “pioneers” about the animosity and hostility of their male counterparts and leaders, many of whom have vocally and publicly expressed that they do not support women entering combat roles. Often, SWAN fields concerns from women seeking to join the military who want guidance  from our staff members who served in the military. SWAN staff also provides guidance and support to women entering, and currently in, combat arms jobs.

Until these policies that continue to segregate women are revoked, and women are fully integrated without any barriers, gender equality –and true culture change– will continue to be elusive in the military.

The Service Women’s Action Network is the voice of women in the US military. It is a member-driven community network advocating for the individual and collective needs of service women past, present and future. To date, it has played a major role in opening jobs to US service women, holding sex offenders accountable in the military justice system, eliminating barriers to disability claims for those who have experienced military sexual trauma and expanding access to services for a broad range of reproductive health care services. The Network is dedicated to ensuring that all service women receive the opportunities, protections, benefits and respect they deserve and have access to the information, tools and support they need to achieve their personal and professional goals during and following their years of service. Visit the Service Women's Action Network online at

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