It’s been 10 years since women were allowed to serve in combat. There’s a lot left to accomplish
In January 2013, during our final days in the Pentagon, we announced a historic decision — that the Department of Defense would overturn the “ground combat exclusion policy,” a Pentagon rule barring women from serving in direct combat ground units below the brigade level. One decade after lifting one of the last major barriers to equal opportunity in the U.S. Armed Forces, there is much to celebrate. There’s even more left to do.
For years we worked with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to address challenges facing women in the military. We assigned a senior Pentagon official and several of our senior military advisors the task of analyzing the impact of formally allowing women to serve in combat roles. In 2012, we opened more than 14,000 positions previously closed to female candidates. Yet while American women had been serving in battle since the Revolutionary War (with some 177 women in uniform killed in Afghanistan and Iraq in this century alone), the ground combat exclusion policy stubbornly endured, disqualifying women from some 200,000 positions across infantry, artillery and other combat roles.
The question we kept returning to was this: Why should a woman who meets the same minimum standards required of a man be barred from fighting on the front lines? After months of debate, and on the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs and with the strong support of President Obama and Vice President Biden, we rescinded the prohibition on women in combat and gave the services three years to review their test and evaluation procedures accordingly. One of my successors, the late Ashton Carter, built on that success in January 2016, scrapping the services’ ability to request waivers to continue excluding women from certain positions. The Armed Forces would open all military occupational specialties to qualified applicants regardless of sex — no exceptions.
Little did we know that, in 10 years, women in the military would make such tremendous strides. Since 2013, we’ve seen a slew of historic firsts, from the first female graduates of the Army Ranger School in 2015 to the first female Marine to lead an infantry platoon in 2018. By 2019, more than 600 female Sailors and Marines were serving in combat arms units previously restricted to men, while more than 650 women held Army combat roles and over 1,000 had accessed Army combat specialties.
Women continue to shatter glass ceilings across the department, rising through the ranks to lead in a growing number of civilian positions and at all levels in the officer and enlisted ranks. In 2021, we witnessed the appointments of the Pentagon’s second and third female combatant commanders, and of its first confirmed female deputy secretary of defense, Kathleen Hicks. And in 2022, Admiral Linda Fagan was sworn in as commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, becoming the first woman to lead any branch of the Armed Forces. These senior defense leaders represent many of the goals we envisioned when we repealed the combat exclusion and more.
But the mission is unfinished. Gender integration efforts, still in their early stages, have had varying levels of success across the services. And although the fraction of active-duty service women has increased across all services, they still make up only 17 percent of the Armed Forces.
Recruitment and retention rates are lower among women than men, contributing to an underrepresentation of women in senior leadership positions. Some female officers cite family and personal life as a key factor in their decision to leave the services, saying that taking care of family commitments has a greater adverse impact on active-duty women than men.
Alarmingly, female service members report suffering from sexual assault, sexual harassment and gender discrimination at rates three to six times higher than male service members, contributing to higher rates of depression and PTSD symptoms among women. And we know that rates of sexual abuse are compounded by race, sexual orientation and gender identity.
As we ask ourselves what can be done in the next decade to achieve a more equitable U.S. military, we may find some answers in the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS). Established in 1951, the committee is appointed by the secretary of defense to provide recommendations on recruitment, retention, employment, integration, well-being and treatment of women in the Armed Forces. As of 2022, approximately 97 percent of the committee’s recommendations had been either fully or partially adopted by the department.
With the U.S. military facing its greatest recruiting challenge since transitioning to an all-volunteer force in 1973, supporting and heeding DACOWITS’s work remains critical to ensuring that women with the propensity to serve are successfully recruited, retained and given equal opportunity to advance without barriers, seen or unseen.
Failure to address practices that perpetuate discriminatory and unsafe working environments, as well as policies that create tradeoffs between women’s career prospects and their health care and child care options, will continue to frustrate efforts to recruit the best and the brightest of women, in all their diversity, to serve this country. The fight continues.
We are proud that the Armed Forces and the United States represent the strongest fighting force on the face of the Earth. One of the reasons is that the opportunity to serve is open to all those qualified to fight for their country. Protecting that right is what protecting America is all about.
Leon E. Panetta served as the 23rd secretary of defense. Shelly Stoneman, who served as a special assistant to Sec. Panetta, is chair of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS).
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