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Research Questions

  1. Which positions and occupations are closed to women in the U.S. military services?
  2. Where it is available, what is the applicable service justification for these restrictions?
  3. What can a set of sample occupations reveal about the nature and degree of closures, possible implications for career progression, and women's representation by pay grade?

Despite a historical increase in the role of women in the U.S. military, including in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, gender-based policies continue to affect the positions they can fill. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011 mandated a review of laws, policies, and regulations that may restrict the service of military women to determine whether changes are needed to ensure equitable opportunity to compete and excel in the armed forces; in response, the U.S. Department of Defense established the Women in the Services Review. To support this effort, RAND researchers analyzed service data to describe and quantify the military occupations that are closed to women, as well as occupations that are open but have some positions that are closed to women. The study also examined a few of the open occupations in greater depth to further characterize the nature of the restrictions and to illuminate the potential career implications of assignment policies. Most positions that are closed to women are located in Army and Marine Corps units and occupations that have a primary mission of engaging in direct ground combat.

Key Findings

In Fiscal Year 2011, the Majority of Authorized Positions Closed to Women Were Located in the Army and Marine Corps.

  • The Army had the largest total number of authorized positions and the Marine Corps had the smallest, but the percentage of positions open to female soldiers (66 percent) was similar to the percentage of positions open to female Marines (68 percent).
  • In the Navy, 88 percent of authorized positions were open to women.
  • In the Air Force, 99 percent of authorized positions were open to women.
  • Across the Army, Marine Corps, and Navy, the percentage of positions open to women was higher for officers than for enlisted personnel.

The Services Apply Policy-Based Restrictions to Positions in Both Occupations and Units.

  • Gender restrictions based on direct ground combat close off to women entire occupations in the combat arms, as well as some types of units entirely, regardless of the occupations they include.
  • In units not primarily engaged in direct ground combat, some positions are closed because the incumbent must come from occupations closed to women or hold additional skills that women cannot obtain under current policies, or because the positions will be collocated with direct ground combat units.
  • Special operations occupations closed to women are physically demanding — even for men who attempt to enter them. Not all positions in special operations commands are closed, however.
  • In the Navy, many restrictions are due to berthing and privacy limitations related to the expense of modifying seagoing vessels — submarines in particular. Such restrictions apply primarily to enlisted women because officers enjoy a higher degree of privacy on ships.


  • Over the course of this research effort, several instances of ambiguity, errors, and conflicting information were found regarding whether positions were closed to women. The services should improve the tracking, accuracy, and visibility of positions closed to women.
  • All positions that are closed to women should be coded to reflect all applicable closures (e.g., direct ground combat, physical requirements). This would help commanders and the military leadership more accurately interpret and apply exclusion policies.

The research described in this report was prepared for the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). The research was conducted within the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by OSD, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

This report is part of the RAND monograph series. RAND monographs present major research findings that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND monographs undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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