Women in Combat: A Step Forward for Equality

07 July 2017


On the 8 of July, the Prime Minister, David Cameron and the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon lifted the ban on women serving in ground close combat roles, following a recommendation from the Chief of General Staff, General Sir Nick Carter. The Defence Secretary stated that he “wanted roles in our armed forces to be determined by ability, not gender”, and rightly so.


Women comprise around 8% of the Armed Forces and before the ban had been lifted, served in support roles as medics and in artillery units. The new policy means that women will now be allowed to enter the Cavalry, Infantry and Armoured Corps. David Cameron said to the BBC that it was a “huge step” and meant that “the Armed Forces could make the most of its talent.”


Using a phased approach, combat roles will be opened to women over the course of three years, from 2016-2019. The process began in November 2016 which allowed women to serve in all roles within certain units of the Royal Armoured Corps (RAC). By the end of 2018, the Armed Forces are hoping to open up roles to women in the Infantry, Royal Marines, and Royal Air Force Regiment. The whole process will be under constant review and ongoing research in order to implement a hardy set of Physical Employment Standards.


There are still some genuine concerns over whether women actually have the physical capability for some of the roles required. The Army’s research suggests that fewer than 5% of its women could pass the current infantry fitness test which involves basic activities such as an eight-mile march in under two hours, weighted with 25kg and much more difficult advanced tests.


The decision was backed by an interim health report published in April 2016 which has delivered sufficient evidence to support the lifting of the ban. The Interim health report of 2014 investigated three key areas of potential risk to women which were MSkI, mental ill-health and impaired reproductive health. However, also in the report, several mitigations were described to reduce the risks which could for example, reduce MSkI by up to 30%. As a result, the Physical Employment Standards are going to be redesigned for ALL employees, not just women, so that it is based on more current and up-to-date science and methodologies.


The 2016 Women in Ground Close Combat Findings Paper strongly believes that opening ground close combat roles to women maximises the scope of talent available to to the Defence sector and delivers equality of opportunity for all service personnel. They have stated that the benefits of this change are maximising talent, accessing more talent, equality of opportunity and improving reputation.


However, as with any new change, there are some strongly opposing views which raise the issue of sexual relations which may lead to humiliation, sexual harassment and sexist behaviour. Robert L. Maginis has written a book titled “Deadly Consequences: How Cowards Are Pushing Women into Combat" where he calls the policy a “product of naive culture that blindly embraces government-hosted violence in the name of equal opportunity.” The book gives insight into those and similar opposing views and the apparent “devastating consequences” that having women in close combat battle may have. In modern day society, these opinions are perhaps viewed as traditional as women have been working alongside men for many years with few issues.


Other views have also come to light from different individuals such as those who believe mixed-sex units are less efficient, reducing the capabilities of the Army. This raises the question of sexism and equality. How will society move forward and change the opinion of many opposers?


In truth, this can only be done with proof, if a female can pass the tests, stand alongside their fellow males in close combat and show that they do have the ability to perform at the highest standard, then no one should doubt them. What is historically a masculine organisation is continuingly adapting through policy evaluation and through changing what the notion of what the modern day women is.


The mere process of opening up the roles to women is a step forward for equality, regardless of how many women apply or pass the tests, at least they now have the chance to be accepted due to their abilities, rather than their gender.


“It is vital that our Armed Forces are world class and reflect the society we live in. Lifting this ban is a major step. It will ensure the Armed Forces can make the most of all their talent and increase opportunities for women to serve in the full range of roles.”
                                                -David Cameron, Former Prime Minister