U.S. military encounters gender debate as women are integrated into many new combat positions

By Diana Stancy

Women today have found a place in virtually every field, including the military. “It’s not just a man’s world anymore,” said Renee Hahn, who recently served for five years in the Navy. “Women are proving themselves to be valuable assets in the military.”

While they have been important in many roles throughout the ranks and have had a significant impact in the past, up until now, women have been unable to participate in combat roles.

That is about to change. In 2013 U.S. military leaders at The Pentagon ordered the armed forces to open all combat jobs to women by 2016. That same year the Pew Research Center found that 66 percent of Americans supported this move. The support was shown across a variety of demographics.

The Marine Corps announced in March that it is establishing an experimental combat force consisting of at least 25 percent women in an effort to see how women will perform in ground combat specialties, including tank crews, artillery gun sections and infantry squads.

Women already fly combat aircraft and serve aboard ships, but the services are opening an increasing number of jobs and units to women applicants.

The military is still a male-dominated field and women compose nearly 15 percent of all active duty members. Infographic by Diana Stancy.

At this point, for instance, 20 of about 335 fields listed by the Marine Corps are closed to women.

There are a variety of fields in the military, including medical, engineering and Special Forces.

Krista Bix, currently working in the civil engineer corps, said there’s a place for everyone. What matters is finding the field where an individual’s talents will contribute most.

“Everyone has their place, regardless of gender,” Bix said. “If you’re qualified for the job you want, you should pursue it.”

Many women may not meet some physical standards for combat roles

The most obvious performance differences between men and women in the military comes in regard to physical capabilities. Most women do not have the size or strength to meet physical standards for jobs that were established with men in mind. Right now the military is evaluating which jobs require standards to remain as set and which could have separate expectations for men and women.

Renee Hahn sees varied fitness standards, which some see as unfair, as a mechanism to achieve equality and diversify the military.

“Men are built different from women,” Hahn said. “It is difficult to find and recruit women who are able to physically be at the same level as men and maintain that. Not saying it isn’t possible, but it is difficult.”

According to the Army’s Basic Training requirements, men ages 17–21 are required to complete 35 push-ups and 47 sit-ups in a two-minute period. They also are required to run two miles in 16:36 or less.

Women are required to do 13 push-ups and 47 sit-ups in two minutes and they receive about extra three minutes to complete the two-mile run. Most women in the service say that while they may be able to perform to the male standard in a one-off situation, they can’t stand up to sustained harsh physical activity as well as males.

“We are required to participate in the same workouts daily,” said Keira Hornyak, a sophomore in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) at the University of Florida. “You notice the differences in the amount of strength men and women possess. It just comes down to body structure.”

Most women can’t make the cut when demanding physical fitness standards are kept at current levels, which were established in consideration of the physical structure and endurance of a male. In the late 1990s Great Britain conducted an 18-month test in which women were asked to meet exactly the same physical fitness standards as men in “gender-free training.” The Gemmel Report, which summarized the test’s finding, found the end result was a high rate of overuse injuries in women.

Josh Manning, a former Army Ranger who worked alongside women in Afghanistan, said that’s no reason for the fitness standards to be reduced. “If you can’t do it, and you do get injured, you don’t make the cut,” Manning said. “That’s the standard you have to work toward.”

19 percent of the Air Force is composed of women, while women compose only 6.8 percent of the Marine Corps. Infographic by Diana Stancy.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T is what women strive to earn; a reasonable equality is a goal

Women often feel the need to prove themselves to their male counterparts.

“My biggest struggle is proving I have the brains to do my job and I’m not just a pretty face,” Bix said. “I’m very aggressive though, so I tend to leave a positive impression.”

Keira Hornyak said this manifests itself throughout training. As a female, training is naturally harder for her, yet it encourages her to work even harder to demonstrate she belongs right where she is.

“I have felt like I really have to prove myself and be the best,” she explained. “But being the best won’t happen when you’re competing against guys who are naturally faster and stronger. Gaining their respect has been a goal for me from the start, but I struggle because I am not able to perform at their level.”

Jill Tamminga, who served 11 years in the Navy as a Naval Flight Officer, expressed similar sentiments. “Sometimes I felt that I needed to work twice as hard to get the same recognition the men would get, but I’m sure that was also due to my own competitive nature,” Tamminga said. “I wanted to be the best.”

According to the Department of Defense, the number of women serving in the military began to steadily increase during the 1980s. Since 2000, rates of women serving have remained relatively stagnant though. Infographic by Diana Stancy.

Some observed that most men in today’s military have worked with women who have demonstrated their work ethic and they have earned their respect. “I think many men in the military see women as equals,” Hahn noted with pride. “We have proven we can get the job done and we sometimes get it done better than the men.”

Compared to other fields, some aspects of the military are fairly advanced in regard to equality. Institutionally, some women have said, things are relatively fair at the administrative level.

Tamminga said genuine equality begins with each individual service member’s contributions.

“For all intents and purposes it is equal — equal pay, equal leave, everything admin-wise is equal,” Tamminga explained. “It comes down to how hard you work to get what you want and doing the best at what you have, even if isn’t the exact job you wanted. I have never felt discriminated against because I am a woman. Improving equality has to start with the individual, judging others based on performance and holding yourself accountable for your own actions.”

Women have served in dangerous war zones before — many have done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan — but combat positions are more dangerous.

Alison Hernandez, a 1986 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, said standards should not be compromised.

“To be truly equal, every warfare specialty would have to be open to women,” Hernandez noted. “Having said that, I sometimes wonder what ‘equal’ really means. The best should be chosen regardless of gender.”

Some women in the military have reservations about the integration of women into combat roles.

Countries including Australia, Canada, France, Poland, Sweden and Finland all formally allow women in participate in combat roles. Infographic by Diana Stancy.

“If a woman will contribute to the effort and the safety of soldiers, then she should be allowed to serve in a combat role,” Hornyak said. “But if she might hinder it in any way, shape or form then her role in combat must be reconsidered. As women’s rights are expanding, their role in combat roles will most likely expand as well. But they should have to pass comprehensive physical fitness tests in order to ensure the protection of our soldiers.”

Some women say there are no disadvantages to women entering combat. Sandra Baxter, a Navy nurse in Portsmouth, Virginia, is one, but she notes that standards should remain the same.

“It is great for anyone who wants to do it,” she said, “I think all opportunities should be open to women and women should be given a chance. Pros include that there are more career opportunities for women. I do not see any cons. If a woman can pass the same tests the men can then good for her.”

Women bring skills: There’s more to military teamwork than physical force

Tamminga noted that trust and teamwork are crucial elements in military operations.

“Men and women are different — there is no way to change that. We think differently,” Tamminga noted. “The important thing about combat is the team — it has to be a cohesive unit made up of people you literally trust with your life.”

Bix said women can be an asset to combat forces because they provides units with an additional point of view and that the differences between men and women can complement each other.

While the military is becoming increasingly diversified, it is still a male-dominated field. According to recent figures from the Pentagon, women comprise approximately 14 percent of active-duty forces. In other words, there are about 203,000 women among the 1.4 million active-duty members. Infographic by Diana Stancy

“Having another view on a situation can be good in combat, on the front lines,” she said. “We tend to be more meticulous and pay attention to details, good qualities for Special Forces and for making quick decisions under stress.”

Hahn noted women have different instincts that can be exceptionally beneficial in a combat role.

“Some people would be surprised at the impact a woman might have in these situations,” Hahn said. “We have a mothering instinct, we are built to protect our loved ones, including our brothers and sisters in arms.”

It’s likely that as decisions regarding the placement of women in military combat roles emerge, the lives of all concerned will hold the highest value.

Hornyak reiterated that safety is the paramount factor and expects will not be compromised in order to arrive at some sort of equality equation.

“The number-one thing we have to keep in mind is the safety of our soldiers,” she said. “When it comes down to it that is all that truly matters. Safety of all — male or female — should be of the utmost importance.”

About the multimedia journalist:

R4PG sat down with reporter Diana Stancy to discuss her exploration of the expanding roles of women in the U.S. military.

Diana Stancy is a junior at Elon University majoring in political science and journalism. She is a senior news reporter for Elon’s campus paper, The Pendulum. She has interned with the Network of enlightened Women (NeW) and in the office of Congressman J. Randy Forbes. In the summer of 2015, she will intern for the Daily Signal with The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., as a news reporter.