Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Women in the Military: A microcosm of the struggle for gender equality?

Though 4-20 may have had other significance for some of you, yesterday was also Equal Pay Day, the day on which women in America finish earning the salary they would’ve received in 2009, were they a man. The disparity between women’s and men’s salaries has decreased only half of a penny in the last 4 decades, hovering right around 80 cents on the dollar. Though there are many theories on why men still out-earn women, I think that the answer lies somewhere in the system; a system that still assumes that women are incapable of any number of things.

Take the military for example.

Having women on the front lines of a hard-fought war seems to be improving public perception of the role women play in our society. In a recent opinion poll, 53 percent of respondents said they would favor permitting women to “join combat units, where they would be directly involved in the ground fighting.” Even within the military, attitudes have begun to change. “Iraq has advanced the cause of full integration for women in the Army by leaps and bounds,” says Peter R. Mansoor, a retired Army colonel. “They have earned the confidence and respect of male colleagues.”

Public opinion may be changing, but a 1950’s law that does not permit women to be placed in direct combat is still on the books, leaving them with far fewer job options than their male counterparts (for example, only 20 percent of positions in the Marines are technically open to women), particularly positions of higher ranking and thus higher pay. This doesn’t mean that women are always kept out of harm’s way. What it does mean is that they are stealthily placed in the line of fire, often being “attached” to a unit, rather than assigned to it.

Because of this, benefits that are easily afforded to men are often harder for women to attain. Women sometimes have to have sustained injuries in order to prove that they’re eligible for combat pay, whereas men receive it automatically, based simply on their assignments. Author Kayla Williams says “One of my closest friends was told by a V.A. doctor that she could not possibly have PTSD for just this reason: He did not believe that she, as a woman, could have been in combat.”

Then there’s the issue of advancement, which often requires combat experience. A large portion of women in the military have been involved in combat, but that experience isn’t on the books because – according to the rules – that wasn’t supposed to happen.

It seems that, though we’re certainly not there yet, we’ve made strides when it comes to what society thinks women are capable of. Women are successful CEOs, negotiate foreign policy with other nations, and rescue fellow soldiers from enemy fire. Now we just need to bring our antiquated codes and laws in line with the valuable contributions women are making, and pay attention to the more nuanced ways in which policies can contribute to inequality. Only then will women be able to jump the barriers they currently face and join men on the front lines, literally and figuratively.

Photo from LIONESS: A film about the first women in U.S. history to be sent into direct ground combat.


  1. There's some errors about women in the military, pay grades and the treatment of PTSD through the VA.

    For starters, women and men in the military are paid according to rank(officer),rate(enlisted)and time in service. They(both)are granted extra pay for hazardous duty, housing and food bennies and travel. All of that is based on the above without regard to gender.

    Secondly, when anyone is "attached" to a Unit they are "assigned" to that unit for the duration. It's called TDY....a temporary duty assignment, which is also still under the same pay guidelines.

    Thirdly, as a Woman Veteran from the VietNam Era, the statement that doctors won't treat women for PTSD because it is not "combat-related" is patently false. I have been in the VA System for over 20 years and there is no difference between my medical/mental treatment than the new Ladies coming into the system.

    Just thought you might want to know.

  2. Thanks for sharing your story with us! It’s great to hear that your experience as a Veteran has been a positive one. As is the case in lots of situations, I think that everyone has a different experience. A lot of women might receive exactly the same benefits as their male counterparts. But there are definitely stories of women who don’t. It seems that the Direct Combat Probability Coding System that is used to determine whether or not a woman can fill a particular position, is what’s making things complicated. Because “technically” a woman cannot be involved in direct combat it puts her in a position to have to “prove” that she did see combat. Some women might not have this problem. But making the system consistent is not only about making sure that every woman who sees direct combat receives the pay she deserves, it’s also about fixing perceptions so that when women return home from war, they’re not met with a society that doesn’t understand what they’ve been through. As Kayla Williams points out, the doctor that her friend saw didn’t understand how she could be suffering from PTSD because women are not supposed to be fighting on the front lines. (You can read some of her writings here: Every woman should be able to have the experience you had…one that treats them as capable equals. And I think that fixing the parts of the system that keep women from succeeding will go a long way toward making that happen.