Implications of Integrating Women into Marine Corps Infantry

For Release

December 3, 2015

The gender integration experiences of foreign militaries — as well as U.S. civilian police and fire departments — can provide valuable lessons for the U.S. Marine Corps as it considers making more opportunities available to women, according to a new study from the RAND Corporation.

“Women have been serving in various roles in the U.S. military for decades,” said Agnes Schaefer, a lead author of the study and a senior political scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “While opening combat occupations to women may be a new area for the U.S. military, there are important lessons to be learned from foreign militaries and other organizations that already have done this type of integration.”

In 2013, the U.S. Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff announced the cancellation of a rule restricting women from being assigned to military occupational specialties involved in direct combat, long-range reconnaissance and special operations forces, as well as positions that include physically demanding tasks. The effect of this will be to open previously closed occupations by Jan. 1, 2016 to women who can meet occupation-specific, gender-neutral standards of performance, potentially opening more than 230,000 positions in the U.S. Armed Forces to women.

The Marine Corps Combat Development Command asked RAND to assist in identifying the issues that may arise if women are integrated into the Marine Corps infantry, describe efforts that have been successful in addressing similar issues in the past and estimate the potential costs associated with integration.

RAND researchers reviewed previous studies on the integration of women in ground combat and other physically demanding occupations, conducted interviews with representatives from organizations that have integrated women into physically demanding occupations, estimated the costs of potential initiatives to promote successful gender integration, and developed an approach for monitoring implementation of gender integration of the infantry.

The RAND study examined the gender integration experiences of militaries in Australia, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden. The study provides a historical overview of the integration of women in the U.S. military and explores the potential impacts of gender integration on unit cohesion — how well a group functions as a unit.

Research indicates that diversity may have some impact on cohesion (because some members may be uncomfortable with a particular individual or group), but it does not necessarily have a negative impact on a group's ability to carry out a task. Cohesion may be reduced if women are perceived as having significantly lower abilities, if women are not accepted, treated with strong hostility and if fraternization occurs within a unit, according to the study.

However, negative impacts on cohesion can be prevented or mitigated by leadership and cohesion-building activities and, in general, cohesion within gender-diverse groups improves over time.

“The environment or the culture of the unit is also important,” Schaefer said. “If the environment is hostile to some members of the group or leadership does not establish a fair, respectful environment to all members of the group, it will have more detrimental effects on cohesion.”

Some foreign militaries have emphasized having at least a minimum “critical mass” of women assigned to integrated combat units. However, the RAND team did not discover a precise threshold or proportion for what would constitute a “critical mass.” The study recommends the Marine Corps consider experimenting with various gender mixes for infantry units of varying sizes, and providing mentoring for those women who are the only female in their unit.

The RAND study found that there would be both one-time and recurring costs to integration. However, Schaefer said the number of women entering the infantry likely will be modest and the increase in representation will likely be slow. Among other countries that have integrated women into combat roles, Schaefer noted that the numbers remain low, and that recruiting and retaining qualified women is an ongoing challenge. Schaefer said overall costs of integration are expected to be modest, compared to overall recruiting and retention spending.

Leadership commitment and accountability are vital to successful gender integration, Schaefer said. Successful gender integration programs have a clear implementation plan, and human resource management policies need to support integration. Targeted recruitment and retention policies can attract women into combat occupations and help retain them in those roles.

The gender integration experiences of U.S. civilian fire departments and police departments show it will be critical to make sure equipment and uniforms fit the needs of women, Schaefer said. Small unit dynamics and discipline also will need to be closely monitored. In addition, military leaders can expect that integration challenges will change and mature over time as women progress in their careers.

The RAND study suggests that the Marines:

  • Remember that leadership is key to integration success
  • Develop detailed implementation plans and assign accountability
  • Establish oversight mechanisms to build trust, transparency and accountability
  • Monitor standards and training
  • Plan for long-term career progression issues
  • Develop integration strategies that best suit the Marine Corps through experimentation linked to data collection, analysis and evaluation
  • Monitor integration process over time
  • Manage internal and external expectations, and ensure the planning process for integration is flexible enough to accommodate learning and adjustments.

The study, “Implications of Integrating Women into the Marine Corps Infantry,” can be found at Other authors include Jennie Wenger, Jennifer Kavanagh, Jonathan Wong, Gillian Oak, Thomas Trail and Todd Nichols.

Research for the study was sponsored by the U.S. Marine Corps and conducted within the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Department of the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies and the defense intelligence community.

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