Week in Review: Jan. 17 to 21

*Week in Review is a weekly post that highlights some of the major stories related to gender issues this week. Some of these stories may have already appeared in our News Feed or in the week’s Gender Checks. We’ll at times include a longer analysis of stories as well as bring attention to stories that may have slipped through the cracks of the week’s news cycle.

Women in Combat

A report released Tuesday by the Military Leadership Diversity Commission recommended women should be allowed to serve in front-line combats. The commission, composed of current and retired military officers, told the Associated Press it was time “to create a level playing field for all qualified service members.”

Currently women, who make up 14 percent of the armed forces, are usually restricted to combat support positions such as medics, transportation officers. However, many women stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan already serve in these front-line positions, but cannot be officially assigned there, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Defense policy prohibits women from being assigned to any unit smaller than a brigade whose primary mission is direct combat on the ground.

Women have sometimes been viewed as lacking the physical strength and stamina for the work these kinds of positions require. Other opponents to the full inclusion site dangers to cohesion within units, or the negative public perception of female military casualties. As of January 3 Pentagon data (as cited in the Washington Post) showed 134 women had been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (compared to the more than 5700 men) . Congress and the White house will hear the report in March.

Analysis

With the recent repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies that banned gay and lesbian women from open military service, this study’s timing, I think, is significant. While the debates about physical strength and capacity for service will continue as long as men can do more push ups in gym class, I think the bigger picture is the opportunities within the military that will be opened up if these changes occur. According to the Post’s coverage of the study, more than 10 percent of Marine Corps and Army occupational specialties positions are out of reach to women because of their lack of combat experience. These new opportunities could see more high-ranking positions filled by women.

Another potential impact is perception of what it means to be equal. Certain feminists would argue that any distinction between gender roles and strengths will default to discrimination and a lingering unbalance in society. I would disagree. A November feature in the New York Times highlighted the advantages female soldiers can have in access and communication with civilians, especially in areas such as Afghanistan where cultural gender expectations would exclude male soldiers from these interactions. This commission’s recommendation is a great step forward for a military that, unfortunately, has a history of stifling equality within its barracks. I just hope it doesn’t diminish the unique skill sets some women, and men, bring to the table outside of combat skills.