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Reports today that the Ministry of Defence is set to lift the restriction on women serving in close combat roles - those that require soldiers to close with and kill the enemy - by 2016 is a positive step towards gender equality in the British Armed Forces. It is also long overdue: it has been fifteen years since the Canadian government removed restrictions, and three since the Australian Defence Force followed suit, more than two years since the US government announced a similar move, and other allies including Denmark, Germany and New Zealand no longer discriminate on gender grounds. There has been a long, and often bitter, debate over the lifting of the restriction; the more important conversation now is how to implement this new policy effectively to preserve the operational integrity of the armed forces and to protect the physical and mental well-being of the women who volunteer for infantry units. The news that there will be further research into the physiological effects of close combat service on women is particularly welcome.
Obstacles to change
The move by the British government is necessary but not sufficient in the battle for equality in the British military. There are a number of significant hurdles for the Ministry of Defence and the three single services to overcome to ensure genuine equality regardless of sex. The initial impact of lifting the ban will be felt most by the British Army, for whom only 70 per cent of roles have been open to female soldiers, with women representing 9 per cent of the service. There is also work to be done in the Royal Navy where 79 per cent of roles are open to women, and approximately 10 per cent service made up of women. Even the RAF will not be immune to the necessary changes in culture, attitudes and employment policies Despite nearly all RAF roles (94 per cent), with the exception of the Royal Air Force Regiment, open to women, female personnel comprise only 14 per cent of its ‘man’-power. If nothing else, these statistics demonstrate that the current restrictions are not the primary barrier to gender equality in the armed forces. There will need to be a change in attitudes towards women in the military, who have traditionally performed gender-normal roles such as administration, education and medical. This cultural shift will be the hardest to effect, overcoming longstanding prejudices and behaviours, but it is possible as changing attitudes towards race and sexuality have shown.
Some of these changes are already in motion. The New Employment Model review is attempting to develop terms and conditions of service that will allow service personnel to be more geographically stable and to move more easily between regular and reserve service, for instance. The armed forces will also be mandated to meet its obligations under the government’s new parental leave policy, permitting parents more flexibility to share time off around the birth of a child. All of these policies will hopefully induce a more ‘family-friendly’ environment, which will be beneficial to personnel of all genders.
There will need to be a critical mass of suitable female soldiers in infantry units in order for the policy to be successfully implemented; as experience from other countries shows, small numbers of female soldiers are likely to be problematic. That should not be seen as an excuse not to integrate women, but as a challenge of how the military recruits and retains appropriately skilled women to serve. This will require significant time and effort to understand and tackle the barriers to women’s entry and retention within the military.
Creating an efficient force
Effort will also be required to integrate women into existing units. There is now significant experience of women having served on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, including on the so-called front line. There needs to be substantial research into the experiences of these women, and their male colleagues, to identify lessons and areas of good practice which can be replicated. The armed forces can also draw upon the experience of a number of allies to improve the experience of women initially integrating into the military.
The integration of women across the services has the potential to create a more efficient and effective fighting force; the private sector has already acknowledged the positive impact of women in the workforce, with 2007 research by Close the Gap concluding that more diverse management teams resulted in better business performance. It will provide a deeper, richer pool of talent from which to recruit and introduce a different perspective of conflict, which is vital for the success of any population-centric campaign. Women have already made a significant positive contribution elsewhere in the military. The introduction of female fighter pilots, for example, was met with much resistance but has been described as one of the best things to have happened to the force.
None of this will be easy. The struggle to have the restriction on women’s roles in the military lifted is only the first salvo of a much longer battle for gender equality in the armed forces.
Vix Anderton is a Research Fellow at RUSI. She specialises in Women, Peace and Security.