03.24.148:00 AM ET

Women Don’t Shy Away From Combat

A news report errs when it says that not many women in the military are interested in combat roles. The statistics tell a different story.

“Few women want combat jobs” a recent headline announced. I was startled—this was a totally different impression than I got at a December 2013 Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) meeting when a U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) representative briefed that early analysis of their survey showed that more than one in five Army women could be willing to switch to combat arms jobs.

A key difference: in the briefing, TRADOC reported that 22 percent of women were either “moderately” or “very” interested in switching to infantry, armor, artillery, or combat engineer jobs. The Associated Press story reported only the smaller percentage of 7.5 percent that is “very” interested (further analysis has also refined the data somewhat). And the journalist chose to include the number of the 30,000 survey respondents, 2,238, who said they would be very interested in switching, rather than applying that percentage to the number of serving women (nearly 170,000). The actual number of women currently in the Army who might be interested in switching to combat arms jobs could be much higher: 33,000.* That is not a number I would characterize as “few.” It is certainly far more than Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.) suggested when he said, “If you only have 10 women who are interested, then what is the uproar all about?”   

Some of the other insights from the surveys are worth highlighting. The women who indicated they were moderately or very interested in transferring were more likely to be under 26 years old and in the three most junior enlisted or officer ranks, which makes sense to me. More junior personnel have less time invested in their current careers and wouldn’t be taking as much of a professional “risk,” in a sense, as someone who has already dedicated 10 or 15 years to gaining expertise and experience in their current job. They were also more likely to self-report having higher scores on the physical fitness test—so those who are less physically fit may already be self-selecting out of the pool of women willing to try to succeed in extremely physically demanding jobs. And those who have already served on Cultural Support Teams or Female Engagement Teams—women who have already served alongside combat arms guys downrange—are more likely to be interested. To me, this is important—those women can make the most informed judgments about whether or not they could do the job and succeed in that environment, and whether or not they are interested in the challenge. Similarly, men who have served with women report being more open to integration. This is also important—those who have actually seen women troops serving alongside men know what women can do.

These surveys cannot tell us how many women will actually try to make a switch once more jobs are opened to women. It’s one thing to imagine a career change and another to actually go through with it—and since the force is shrinking, if any of the currently closed jobs are over strength when the jobs open, the Army may not allow any mid-career troops, male or female, to transfer into them. They also can’t tell us how many women will select these jobs upon initial entry.

The Army’s gender integration study, of which these surveys are a part, is being conducted to identify barriers to integrating women into closed jobs and strategies to mitigate them. They will not be used to decide whether or not to open closed jobs. I’ve seen a lot of concern within the advocacy community on this issue: if the propensity surveys show few women are interested, perhaps the Army will use this as an excuse to keep jobs closed. Stories of other previously closed jobs that have been opened recently, however, don’t indicate that the Army has waited for large numbers of women to express interest before moving forward. For example, the first MLRS Crewmember class to accept women had only four female students (one of whom earned a 100 percent average for the course. Surveys of male troops in currently closed jobs won’t be used to keep women out, either—this is the Army, after all, which quite famously is not a democracy. But being aware of men’s concerns can influence the types of training given as integration approaches. For example, to alleviate male soldiers’ concerns about mysterious “women issues,” the Army can make sure troops in closed units know that the Female Urinary Diversion Device FUDD is part of the supply chain now, allowing women to pee on patrol more easily. 
The other big study going on is the physical demands study, which is validating the physical demands of currently closed jobs and determining the physiological capabilities required to complete job-specific tasks. In the future, rather than just assuming that all men and no women would be able to do those tasks, all soldiers will have to demonstrate their ability to do so. The Army has laid out a very deliberate, methodical approach called Soldier 2020 to “allow talented people—regardless of gender—to serve in any position in which they are capable of performing to standard.” They’ve brought in outsiders (including me, as well as other former senior leaders and academics with extensive experience) to give input on their process. I’ve seen nothing to make me question the Army’s commitment to opening currently closed jobs to qualified women in the future or their desire to do so in a way that maintains or enhances the overall readiness and effectiveness of the force.

I’m not a journalist and don’t know how the decision is made to focus on one set of numbers or another—and I know from past experience that editors, not journalists, often write headlines. But my personal take on the initial results of the Army’s surveys is much more positive than the article or its headline.

*Since the Army is shrinking, I rounded the AP’s “nearly 170,000” number down to 165,000 and multiplied that by 20 percent, slightly lower than the 22 percent TRADOC reported as either moderately or very interested in switching back in December, since the final figures have not been announced—so this is likely a conservative figure.  
Kayla Williams is the author of Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War. She is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project and was formerly a sergeant in a military intelligence company of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).