Traditional 'Sexist' Beliefs Keep Women from Combat, Scientists Say

woman soldier looking victorious with apache helicopter fly past.
Women are just as capable, physically and mentally, as men in the military, scientists say. (Image credit: koh sze kiat | Shutterstock)

This article was updated at 2:11 pm EST Feb. 13

The military is opening up jobs for women thanks to eased regulations announced Thursday (Feb. 9), but Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum's opposition to women in direct combat may help reveal the reasons women haven't been allowed on the front lines. The belief, however, contains more myth than science, say sociologists and others who study women in the military.

The truth is, some women are capable, both physically and mentally, of performing admirably on the front lines, just like some men are, Ryan Kelty, a sociologist specializing in the military from Washington College, told LiveScience. Women are currently serving in many positions that put them in harm's way already, Kelty said.

"They can serve as transportation personnel. They can be military police," Kelty said. "They might not be the ones knocking in the door, but they are standing right next to the man who is. Women can do those jobs and they can do them well."

Changes to policy

In an effort to reduce gender-based restrictions on service, the Department of Defense (DoD) announced last week that it would open up 14,000 military jobs to women. Throughout the military, about 80 percent of jobs are open to women currently, but this varies significantly depending on the branch: The Air Force has 99 percent of positions open to women, but the Army has only 69 percent.

The changes include eliminating the"co-localization" rule, which keeps women out of positions localized with direct combat units. Eliminating the policy opens up more than 13,000 positions and even added a few new specialties, such as tank mechanic. The other big change includes opening up more than 1,000 positions at the battalion level (group of about 800 military personnel) to women in specialties such as intelligence and communications. [The History of Human Aggression]

"This report is a start," Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) said in a statement. "Unfortunately, the conclusions of this report do not go far enough. I am very disappointed," Sanchez said, adding that the new openings are essentially, "a pilot program, which I believe is ridiculous." As a member of the House Armed Services Committee,Sanchez is fighting for gender equality in the military both on and off the battlefield.

Why gender differences

Currently women make up nearly 15 percent of the nation's 1.5 million active duty military personnel, pointing to the fact that gender equality in the military has come a long way since the '70s, when North Dakota was off limits because "it was too cold," said Vee Penrod, the deputy assistant undersecretary of defense for military personnel. Still, more than 280,000 service positions had remained closed to women.

Some share Santorum's worries that women don't have the necessary physical strength and stamina to do the job, or fear that women's presence might hurt unit cohesion or create sexual tension. Other concerns include privacy (including situations like women being able to find places to urinate while on patrol) and rooming issues on submarines.

But experience finds that women are already able to do many "men's" military jobs without causing these problems: They are already serving alongside men in the field, as "attachments" instead of assignments. To date, 144 women have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 60 of them in combat.

"If they can be there and do that job, let them do that job legitimately," Kelty said. "I would certainly think that for those women, that will be a big deal and give them a better sense of appropriate inclusion and giving credit where credit is due."

Possible impacts

Establishing gender-neutral requirements (a soldier — male or female — must be able to carry a 100-pound pack for eight hours, for example) for any given position, which the DoD plans to do, would go a long way to equalizing the gender divide in the military, Kelty said.

Any woman who meets the physical and mental criteria for a position should be able to apply for that position, no matter if it's deemed as "direct combat," Kelty said.

If a woman is capable, the traditionally held beliefs that they should be kept safe are bigger barriers than physical differences. Kelty equates this gender inequality to racial inequality that permeated the armed forces for decades, when African-American soldiers were segregated and the positions open to them were limited. [Busted! 6 Gender Myths]

Just like when blacks were first desegregated, "there will perhaps be growing pains; but maybe we have already gone through some of those, since we've seen those transitions on the ground," by deploying women as attachments, Kelty said. "That's not a reason not to do it and it certainly doesn't justify the systematic exclusion of individuals who want to serve and are capable of serving."

These new openings are just the beginning, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stressed. The process of opening more positions up to women will be based on further review of the current changes and how they are implemented. Kelty believes we could see women on the front lines in 10 to 20 years.

"They have a lot of work to do, but I think they see what the objective is," Kelty said. "Given limited resources and the fact that they are playing catch-up, my perception is that they are moving in the right direction."

You can follow LiveScience staff writer Jennifer Welsh on Twitter @microbelover. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

Correction: This article was updated at 2:11 pm EST Feb. 13, to fix a typo in paragraph nine. The line originally said: "To date, 144 women have lost their lives in Iran and Afghanistan, about 60 of them in combat." Iran was changed to Iraq.

Jennifer Welsh

Jennifer Welsh is a Connecticut-based science writer and editor and a regular contributor to Live Science. She also has several years of bench work in cancer research and anti-viral drug discovery under her belt. She has previously written for Science News, VerywellHealth, The Scientist, Discover Magazine, WIRED Science, and Business Insider.