Image: Scott Platt
Sep. 6—Nearly eight years ago, the United States opened up all military combat roles to women, clearing a pathway for female service members to join the most elite military forces. But even before the first women qualified to become part of the revered Green Berets or 75th Ranger Regiment, thousands worked in noncombat roles dating as far back as the Revolutionary War. During the war in Afghanistan, women deployed, and one died, working alongside the Green Berets and Army Rangers.
Still, gender biases, and at times outright misogyny, pervade all levels of the Special Operations forces, according to a recent report by the Army Special Operations Command, which aimed to discover what challenges its 2,300 female service members encounter. In response to a survey, one senior enlisted man wrote that women requesting to go to Special Forces don’t do so to capitalize on career opportunities but to look for “a husband, boyfriend or attention.” Another anonymous senior enlisted man said it is “ridiculous” to think women can perform most jobs at the same physical, mental and emotional levels as men. Some threatened to retire before working on a team with a woman. These comments, alas, are not outliers. The report concludes they reflect the sexist mentality of many male soldie
Gender integration has long been a problem for the military at large, and the Special Operations forces deserve commendation for taking the lead in investigating and extinguishing these divisions. Especially as the Army begins to increasingly rely upon Special Forces, ensuring they are fair and nondiscriminatory spaces will be vital as the branch continues to face recruitment challenges.
Yet gender bias makes life in the Special Forces unnecessarily difficult for women. Many men wrote they feared that having both men and women on combat teams would anger their wives and degrade team unity. Yet other countries that have integrated teams have not documented difficulties with unit cohesion, and studies in the business sector show that gender-diverse teams make better decisions up to 73 percent of the time.
Particularly troubling is the culture of fear and harassment researchers documented within the Special Forces. Women at multiple military bases reported that other soldiers would bang on their doors in the middle of the night. Soldiers said the master key would be given to anyone who asked without question, and one woman said a male soldier used the key to access her room and leave a pair of high-heel combat boots. A senior female officer told the research team that she works to get her soldiers out of the barracks because they are not safe there.
Female soldiers describe a system that crushes attempts to report cases of sexual harassment. Researchers conducted 48 focus groups. In one, a woman said her officer in charge warned that if she filed a report, it would become how she would “be known throughout the regiment” and admonished her to “quit being a little girl.” Another said she was told her complaint would go nowhere because the offender was “cool” with the higher-ups. Women from one unit were particularly reluctant to discuss sexual harassment reporting experiences, but after some sessions, one participant approached a researcher alone in the bathroom and said she was told “not to rat on anyone during these interviews.”
Focus group participants acknowledged previous or ongoing sexual harassment. Yet only 30 percent of female soldiers reported sexual harassment as a challenge in the researchers’ survey, a number that shocked most women in the small group discussions. Considering the conditions in which women serve, many are likely afraid to speak out.
Women have fought and died for this country alongside men for centuries. The gender bias and abuse still alive within the military are a disservice to the country, but with transparency and targeted efforts that the Army’s Special Operations Command is modeling for the rest, the armed forces can be transformed.
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