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The British armed forces have formally opened up combat roles to women, a historic change for the military given that it was only in 1994 that men and women were allowed to serve together within the same units and organisations. The UK’s decision follows in the wake of the US’s 2015 announcement to the same effect, as well as the experience of Canada, Australia and several other states where gender as a measurement of job segregation is long gone. But the change in British policy is still some way from seeing the first women officially deployed in previously closed roles and the announcement is by no means the end of the matter.
Until now, Britain’s combat exclusion had restricted women from roles which were primarily to ‘close with and kill the enemy’. This meant they were ineligible for service with the Royal Marines, the Royal Air Force Regiment, and the British Army’s Infantry, Household Cavalry and Royal Armoured Corps. In previous official reviews of the combat exclusion decision, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had acknowledged that, whilst a small proportion of women would have unquestionably been able to meet the high physical standards required for such ground combat roles, there were doubts as to the impact on combat efficiency and unit cohesion or, as Hollywood and history have characterised it, the ‘band of brothers’ ethos. Without conclusive evidence that including women in ground combat roles will not alter the ability of the military to successfully conduct its missions, the MoD was unwilling to alter the status quo.
Reversing the policy may be explained by some as an official nod to political correctness, especially since, with the US making such changes, it would have been that much harder for the UK to justify maintaining gender segregation. Supporters of the decision have argued that the twenty-first century reality is that women are already operating in combat – British military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen citations for women’s feats working alongside men in combat situations and their deaths are a testament to how the reality on the ground changes faster than the perspective from Whitehall. In the civilian world, diversity has long been a standard of good employment practice, and the armed forces have been pushing to reflect this in all other areas of service in recent years. Having lifted the bar on service previously imposed on gay and transsexual personnel, gender remained the last marker of discrimination to be addressed.
The policy change is accompanied by a promise that no standards will be altered, and that all men and women will have to meet the same requirements if they wish to serve in these roles. The imponderable question now is how many women are likely to want these posts in the first place and how many of them will succeed in the application process.
The MoD’s Interim Report on the Health Risks to Women in Ground Close Combat Roles on which the policy decision drew raised concerns over the long-term physical harm likely to occur to women’s bodies from the demands of the roles: women were found to be more prone to injury than men; and mental and reproductive health effects assessments were inconclusive at this stage. Whether adjustments to how women are trained from the outset could change this remains to be seen, but injury from training (and eventual combat) is something both men and women have to contend with.
It is argued that unit cohesion leads to military effectiveness; in debates over whether women should be in ground combat roles, women are frequently cited as detrimental to unit cohesion and thus to military effectiveness. However, many military academics argue that in an all-volunteer professional force, it is personnel performance and task cohesion that is instrumental. An individual’s proven ability to accomplish tasks and contribute to successful mission completion leads to wider group acceptance and overall military effectiveness. This should come about by women meeting the same training requirements as men, although perceptions already exist that women will be given an easier ride in order to ensure that the political decision to integrate them is deemed successful. Changing this perception would probably be done only through practice: through women doing the jobs, time and time again.
Women’s integration will be phased in over the next few years and the process will span mundane problems – such as logistical allocations in barracks – to the huge cultural shifts necessary. Alongside the weight of history, some men still define their masculinity through being part of the British Infantry and women’s participation will challenge their very identity. Others may find it difficult to detach from societal conventions that have long held women to be weaker and in need of help from men. The oft-raised question of the practicalities around toilets in field conditions seems indicative that men and women may struggle to set aside deeply ingrained social norms. Concerns have been raised about the ability of men and women working together in close quarters to deal with sexual attraction, as well as sexual harassment and abuse. But keeping women separated is a short-sighted response to these issues; instilling professionalism and rigorously upholding the ethical code of conduct and standards of service that the military prides itself on are better means of addressing them.
From an organisational perspective, changing the rules will mean a greater pool of recruits from which to pick. This may be increasingly necessary in an age where a war-weary population does not view the military as an employer of choice and also where the increased obesity/decreased general health and fitness of young people bars them from joining the military in the first place. It also brings the UK in line with many of its coalition partners with whom interoperability remains a core tenet of the latest Strategic Defence and Security Review. Still, if this policy is to succeed, strong, clear and unambiguous leadership from the very top and all the way down will be needed to champion the initiative. Women who opt for ground combat roles will not need some support, but changing centuries-old practices means that everyone from the generals to the corporals will need to speak up in support of the move and swiftly shut down comments that continue to reject women’s participation.
Either way, the policy change is here; the time for debating its merits is over. It is time to get on with the job of letting people who have passed the selection hurdles to do their job.