Breaking the Military’s Brass Ceiling

Flickr/Boston Public Library

At a meeting of the Military Leadership Diversity Commission in March 2010, someone asked then-Marine Corps Commandant James T. Conway whether it was possible for a woman to ever be promoted to his position. He had to think about it for a little bit.  Not from the usual career path of "combat arms," he said, because those were closed to women; maybe a female pilot could be eligible. Then he added that he didn't think anything would change "because I don’t think our women want it to change."

The room went silent. You could hear the intake of breath, people moving in their seats. All eyes shot to the female generals and admirals among the commissioners who were now retired thanks to the ban on women serving in "direct ground combat positions." The ban didn't stop them from serving in combat, just from getting credit for it and from having the opportunity to lead "combat"-designated units. Without those commands, you can't rise to the very top of the military hierarchy.

After outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s cancellation of the ban last Thursday, perhaps such outdated overtures from our leading military personnel are finally heading gently into that good night, along with the sexist perceptions of military force that shadow all of American culture. Before Thursday’s rule change, only 14,000 combat-related slots were open to women in the Army, and those only opened last year. Following implementation of the change, there’ll be over 200,000 throughout the military—including U.S. Marine Corps commandant

I served on the research staff for the commission. Congress created the commission, a group of high-profile military and civilian leaders, to look into why white men made it to the most senior officer and enlisted ranks at rates that are significantly disproportionate to their overall numbers in the various services. The question was important to the military because, just as in civilian career fields, it is difficult to retain high-quality minority and female personnel when there are so few people who "look like them" in senior ranks. When pathfinders do break through the glass ceiling—like Commissioner Julius W. Becton, Jr.—they show that it can be done and can mentor others, like Becton’s famous protégé, Colin Powell. This is Retention 101.

The problem was compounded by the female combat exclusion. Although decades old, the current version—based in Defense Department regulations, not congressional statute—dates to 1994 and provides that "women shall be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground." This means infantry, armor, or Special Forces assignments were closed to women, as well as assignments to non-combat units that are "co-located" with combat units.  

The thing is, a fact that has received a lot of belated notice since the announcement of Panetta's decision, lots of women already serve in combat, get shot at, get wounded, and get killed. But like the military before Truman desegregated it, the system created a ceiling made of brass rather than glass. Denied the opportunity to command the types of units that are actually required for rising to the very top of the military hierarchy, top female personnel leave the military. 

Take General Rebecca Halsted, one of the commissioners. She was the first female West Point graduate to become a brigadier general. Without a combat command, she was not even eligible to get a second star in her Army career path. Even General Ann E. Dunwoody, the Army's first female four-star general, was ineligible to be Army chief of staff—the Army's top job—because her glass-ceiling-busting career in the logistics field didn't include a combat command.


One of the key catalysts of integration in American society has been integration in the military. Once upon a time, whites found reasons to argue against racially integrating the military. Conservatives railed against allowing gays and lesbians to openly serve. And they find a whole bunch of reasons why women should not be allowed in combat. It is as if conservatives are afraid that men will no longer be "men" if the values they ascribe to manliness—honor, duty, sacrifice, uprightness, etc.—are shared by the opposite sex. Little wonder then that Elaine Donnelly at the conservative Center for Military Readiness uses the word "emasculate" in her opposition to scrapping the rule.

Even a cursory review of the contentions used by opponents of lifting the ground combat exclusion shows how bogus they are. Exposing the social conservative mindset is retired General Jerry Boykin, now at the arch-conservative Family Research Council, who issued a press release calling the move a "social experiment" that would be a "distraction" that "places additional and unnecessary burdens on leaders at all levels." There is an underlying red herring here, that military leaders spend all their time "focus[ing] … on winning the battles and protecting their troops." As anyone who has ever spent any time in the Pentagon knows—as does Boykin, I'm sure—there are a lot of people in and out of uniform whose work has nothing at all to do with battles or force protection. 

The most common contention is that women are just too physiologically different to serve as infantry grunts. How can you expect a dainty girl to "hump" 80-plus pounds of gear in battle, or to carry some injured male infantry soldier to medevac? This complaint is based on several false stereotypes. First, not all men are physically capable of carrying all that gear (or of passing military entrance exams in the first place). Those who can't aren't let into units where it's necessary.  Second, carrying all that gear is only necessary in some very specific units, and even then in only very specific situations. Third, and most important, some women can do it. As a policy matter, the response to this is simple (though it may take a little bit of work): figure out what the real requirements are for service in any given unit and then tailor the physical requirements accordingly. There is zero reason to blithely assume that no woman would ever want to be a Navy SEAL or could ever qualify for it.

Donnelly contends that "combat experience is not necessary for advancement. Pentagon data consistently show that military women are promoted at rates equal to or faster than men." Behold, another red herring! With the exclusion in place, women can be promoted within the job fields that they serve in, but they can't be promoted into units where they are barred—nor can they get promoted to the highest levels of some of the fields where they are allowed when promotion requires a combat command. (And if they are indeed promoted faster than men, that might hint at something that conservatives always ignore: excluded from old boys' social networks just like minorities and immigrants are, women often find it necessary to perform twice as well as white men in order to get something like equal treatment.)

There's the argument that this isn't about opportunity, but about choice, or rather the opposite of it: the military forcing women into combat roles. Right.

Then there is the matter of sex. It's not just bathrooms and "hygiene" (and male discomfort with the concept of menstruation) but sexual activity that frightens critics, particularly social conservatives who are obsessed with their notions of sexual morality. In the words of one right-wing commentator, "It is ludicrous to believe that mixed units will be immune to the potentially de-stabilizing effects of sexual attraction. And as night follows day, sexual attraction leads to pregnancy." The military already has rules covering consensual sex (though their stringency may create problems).

It reminds me of what we saw back when I was an analyst at the RAND Corporation working on the study that helped lead to the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."  Critics were afraid that letting gays and lesbians serve openly would interrupt the culture of male homoeroticism—which is strongest in special operations units and the Marines generally—and that it would offend the mores of conservative Christian soldiers and their spouses. Notice that this approach seems to protect the interests of the bigot more than those of gay or lesbian soldiers. There is an odd parallel in how critics of ending the ground combat exclusion have suddenly noticed the frightening rates of sexual assault in the military only in order to take the paternalistic attitude that to "protect" women from those uncontrollable men (and to protect military men from more "sensitivity training"), they should be denied opportunity. The critics don't seem to think that a better way to reduce sexual assault would be to truly enforce existing rules, beef them up as necessary, and treat women as equals (attitude seems to play a part when comparing national rates).

This decision is a victory for equality worthy of celebration. Coming just a few days after President Obama's rather progressive-sounding second inaugural address, one might even tentatively hope to see some more progressive personnel policies in the Pentagon under the next secretary, such as extending same-sex partner benefits. (How hopeful we should be about how progressively Obama actually uses the military in his second term remains to be seen, given his first term's "Kill Matrix," whistleblower prosecutions, use of drones, and the ever-expanding security state at home and operations and bases abroad.)

There are, of course, still issues to address. Implementation will be left up to the service chiefs to figure out, and the decision allows them to make a case to block women from serving in specific fields; Senator Jim Inhofe has threatened to do that by legislation. The Selective Service might need to start registering women. The sexual assault has got to stop. But we should remember that the opponents of ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell made it sound like the military would fall apart if gays and lesbians were allowed to serve openly. It didn't.

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