The Atmosphere of the Military Culture and Obligations Behind it

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Operating in a culturally masculine environment, women in the military face the hurdle of finding their place in the bonafide boys club. The role of women in military operations has always been viewed as to support the operations carried out by their male counterparts by assuming less physical and non-combat roles. This outlook has caused service women to endure being treated as second class citizens. Women in service face numerous challenges that are physical, personal, familial, romantic and most importantly, organizational. In this short paper, I will discuss two significant gender-specific challenges that women continue to face, particularly in their efforts to serve in combat roles. I will briefly discuss the efforts made by the military as an institution in addressing these issues and offer some points on what the military can do to improve their efforts.

The U.S military exclusively opened the gates for women to join combat units in 2015, a move that might be considered rather late for a world leading nation that prides itself as highly progressive. However, these great efforts have made this opportunity more of a hurdle for women seeking to participate in combat roles.The introduction of this policy has sparked debates of whether women belong in combat units or not, questioning the abilities of women to keep up with the emotional, psychological and physical aspects of combat. The fact that there is so much back and forth towards the integration of women proves the discriminatory nature of the military towards women which is the biggest problem that women face in military spaces particularly when pursuing combat roles. The integration of women in combat roles is problematic due to so many misconceptions that not only the military but society at large hold towards women. The number one reason for the pushback on this policy was that integrating women would decrease the cohesiveness of combat units which is essentially not true. Of-course female and male bodies are different and can handle different amounts of pressure but that should not be a deciding factor on cohesiveness.

The marines are one particular group that continues to highly and explicitly discriminate towards women, especially those who wish to take on their coveted combat roles. After filing to be exempt from the integration policy in 2015 which the secretary of defense Ash Carter denied, the marines still find ways to blur the lines between their tolerance for women marines and acceptance. Today, female and male marines experience gender segregated basic training but are required to meet equal standards. Although the standards are mostly the same across the board, women seek to meet this challenge by working twice as hard to prove themselves. Women are viewed in a dark light when it comes to their effectiveness in combat roles and face a lot of criticism regarding their physical and emotional abilities.

A scene in the book Ashely’s war by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon perfectly illustrates the dynamic of being accepted and proving oneself as a female in combat roles. In this scene, an instructor asks Kate, a military police officer who would be selected for the CST’s, to give a brief on why CST’s were important. What followed was a long, difficult, emotional and unexpected response as Kate grappled with the question and the criticism that followed. Kate succumbed to the perceived notion of women as incapable and inferior which a lot of service women have to endure. While integrating women into combat units is a move in the right direction, it should not be a perceivably impossible goal to achieve. Women should be given the same opportunities to prove themselves without being criticised or have their abilities questioned. Women should be able to define their own limits without a consideration of lowering standards for them. At the end of the day, those who can, will regardless of gender or age.

To increase acceptance for women in combat roles, the military recognizes that leadership plays a vital role. “Good leadership is key to increasing the acceptance of women. Leaders that treat both women and men fairly, provide support for women, and emphasize the good of the group and to create cohesive groups in which women are fully integrated into group life” (Rand. 2015) Therefore since the passing of the integration policy, the military has focused on increased cohesion exercises that challenge women and men in the same way. The military has also heavily relied on studies and long term research projects to better understand the effectiveness of their efforts. While these studies offer a great deal of insight, they do not offer real solutions on how to combat this issue. While the integration policy itself serves as an effort to increase acceptance for women in the military in general, it has brewed and exposed more cracks in the way women soldiers are treated.

Sexual Assault has been a leading problem for women soldiers for decades. Although it affects all women soldiers, a higher percentage of sexual assault towards women is reportedly among those exposed to combat with female marines reportedly experiencing higher levels of sexual assault compared to other military branches. A huge reason has to do with the hypermasculine culture or as some argue as the “toxic masculinity” that the military embraces. Wood and Toppelberg describe socialization process such as basic training and hazing which are “violent, sexualized and misogynistic” and incorporate degrading langauge as the leading causes for sexual assault towards women soldiers or those who exhibit feminine traits. Two related problems that arise from the problem of sexual assault are the retaliation that comes to women who are brave enough to report sexual assault and neglegence to investigate from their leadership even if they do report. “Retaliation against servicemembers who report sexual assault is frequent and often severe. About two-thirds of those who reported sexual assault in 2015 experienced at least one form of retaliation”(Wood and Toppelberg. 2017. 623) Today, reports on sexual assault remain at a low thirty percent of all cases due to fear of retaliation. Not only has retaliation gone as far as costing victims their careers, but it has also disrupted their lives after service, causing PTSD and affecting their relational experiences.

To work towards combating the persistent issue of sexual assault, the military has since adopted a zero tolerance policy. This policy incorporates educational programs to educate service members on sexual assault. Giving an emphasis on prevention, these educational programs are often hour long lectures and powerpoint presentations which do not fully expose the true nature of these issues. While these efforts achieve their task, to educate, they often just end up being protocol if leadership is not being intentional about assuring their subordinates of safe spaces. While these efforts are progressive, they are proving ineffective because the rate of sexual assault continues to escalate and most importantly, they have done very little to increase accountability of leadership and perpertrators of sexual assault crimes.

Creating institutional changes is not an overnight task. Progress has been made but it is not enough which leads us to ask if there is any potential for institutional change at all. The answer is yes, potential lies in finding the right approaches to tackle these issues. To take time to listen to the needs of service members who endure these hurdles and most importantly, to remove biases and speak truth to power by holding everyone accountable regardless of rank, role or gender. To create lasting change, the military needs to be continually intentional about women’s voices and leadership, to focus more on the importance of getting the right people for the job than on who they are. Ultimately, it’s not about who women are but it’s about how they are treated.

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