Expanded Opportunities for Women in Combat Roles Strengthen Armed Forces

By Liz Wing, Women’s Bureau, U.S. Dept. of Labor

Capt. Kristen Griest participates in combatives training during the Ranger Course on Fort Benning, Georgia, April 20, 2015. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Nikayla Shodeen.

Capt. Kristen Griest participates in combatives training during the Ranger Course on Fort Benning, Georgia, April 20, 2015. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Nikayla Shodeen.

At the Women’s Bureau, we work to level the playing field for all women in the labor force, which often means expanding job opportunities for women. Naturally, we were excited when Defense Secretary Ash Carter recently announced that all military occupations and positions should be open to female service members.

For the first time in U.S. military history, women who qualify and meet specific standards are able to officially serve in all of the country’s special operations forces, including in the Navy SEALs, the Army Special Forces and in other roles formerly closed to women. In total, this change will open up 52 military occupations to women.

President Obama praised the decision: “As Commander in Chief, I know that this change, like others before it, will again make our military even stronger. Our armed forces will draw on an even wider pool of talent. Women who can meet the high standards required will have new opportunities to serve.”

We know women have much to offer and are up to the challenge at all levels. They are willing and eager to compete in some of the most rigorous physical training in the military. In August, two women made history as they became the first women to complete Army Ranger School, and were quickly followed by a third.

Opening more military occupations to women, along with efforts to update the military’s workplace flexibility policies, recognizes that creating opportunities for women to thrive can lead to better and stronger armed forces. Importantly, these kinds of policy changes will help open up pipelines to the most senior leadership jobs that, historically, have a low representation of women. For example, in 2014, women made up about 15 percent of all active duty personnel, but about 7 percent of the highest ranks of the officer corps.

An example of one of the extraordinary women who has risen through the ranks is Navy Admiral Michelle Howard, who was recently promoted to four-star admiral. She is the first woman to achieve this rank in Navy history.

Rear Admiral Michelle Howard, pictured on the USS Wasp in 2009. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Andrew McCord.

Rear Admiral Michelle Howard, pictured on the USS Wasp in 2009. U.S. Navy photo by Andrew McCord.

Policy changes such as these in the military have opened up opportunities for more women. If the United States military can adopt these policies, there is no reason we should accept anything less from other employers. We will continue to work to ensure that no artificial barriers stand in the way of women’s success. And we must all cultivate a culture of respect in our workplaces; evolve workplace flexibility policies; and recruit, retain and promote women based on their raw talent alone.

Liz Wing is a senior adviser for the Women’s Bureau.