Research Brief

The number of women in the armed forces surged with the establishment of the all-volunteer force. With this increase came pressure to open more units and career fields to women. Between 1992 and 1994, legislative and policy changes were made to increase opportunities for women. Two researchers from RAND's National Defense Research Institute, Margaret C. Harrell and Laura L. Miller, have examined the progress of the services in expanding opportunities for women and the effect of that expansion on the readiness, cohesion, and morale of selected units.[1] The results of their research appear in New Opportunities for Military Women: Effects on Readiness, Cohesion, and Morale. They conclude that, overall, women can serve in a much wider range of units and career fields than they could in 1993 but that sharp differences exist among services. Furthermore, integration of women has had a small effect on readiness, cohesion, and morale—leadership, training, and the unit workload are perceived as having a far more profound influence.

Results of Changes

The legislative and policy changes had a sweeping effect. Across the Department of Defense, more than 250,000 additional positions opened to women. (However, eligibility does not always translate to immediate, large-scale entry.) The figure depicts the percentage of positions open to women in 1993 and 1997 and shows that more than 80 percent of all DoD positions are now available to women, or, in the lexicon of military personnel managers, are "gender neutral."

Positions Open to Women in 1993 and 1997

The figure shows that, between 1993 and 1997, positions opened for women in every service. However, the figure also shows that opportunity varies by service. The Air Force has the highest percentage of billets available to women at 99.7. Although the changes reflect a relatively small increase in the percentage of assignments open to women (97 percent were already open when the changes went into effect), they were important because they permitted women to fly combat aircraft, a coveted and career-enhancing assignment.

The Navy and Marine Corps made the largest gains in numbers and percentage of assignments accessible to women. Today women can serve in 91 percent of the Navy billets, an increase of about 30 percent.[2] Furthermore, like the Air Force, women in the Navy have more career-enhancing opportunities: They can fly combat aircraft and serve on combat ships. Harrell and Miller found no barriers at the unit level to women serving in combat aviation assignments. Women remain excluded from submarine duty and small vessels, largely because of living arrangement restrictions, and from units that engage in direct ground combat, such as the Navy SEALS. Still, sea duty is now routinely expected of women.

The Marine Corps almost doubled the fraction of positions open to women and plans to expand their presence once some transitional issues, such as living arrangements on deploying ships, have been addressed. The Marines will increase the overall percentage of women in the Corps substantially, although far below the 13–15 percent in the other services. However, the continuing exclusion of women from direct ground combat limits the range of positions they can fill in some newly opened occupations and keeps other occupations closed to them.

Army women's exclusion from direct ground combat also affects a large number of positions. Many of these are the ones that lead to advancement. Furthermore, as these exclusions are a matter of policy and are not simply a transitional effect, women cannot expect to progress very far in some of the fields opened to them. Since women will have to compete among themselves and with men for the few command assignments available to them in these fields, Harrell and Miller anticipate that many may either leave the Army or switch occupations. Additionally, the researchers found some unofficial barriers. For example, some Army commanders try to limit the number of women in any one unit by sending "surplus" women to work in other occupations, and some commanders refuse to assign women to newly opened units based on their interpretations about what constitutes collocation with a unit engaged in direct combat.

Effects on Units

Using multiple methods (i.e., interviews, surveys, focus groups) to assess effects on units, this study found that gender integration has had a relatively small effect on readiness, cohesion, and morale. This is not to say that it has no effect; it does. However, other influences, such as leadership, are perceived by those interviewed and surveyed as being far more influential.


When compared with the effects of training, operational tempo, leadership, and materiel, gender is not perceived as affecting readiness. Pregnancy can affect the deployability of a unit when the unit has a disproportionate number of women or is understaffed. In terms of the quality of women, the majority of officers and experienced enlisted personnel surveyed asserted that women perform about as well as men do.


Any divisions caused by gender were minimal or invisible in units with high cohesion. Gender was reported as a secondary issue in units that had conflicting groups, and then it took a back seat to divisions along work group or rank lines. When it was perceived as having a negative effect, it was generally because gender is one way that people break into categories when conflict surfaces, because structures or organizational behavior highlight gender differences, or because dating occurs within a unit. Not all gender effects are negative. The presence of women was also cited as raising the level of professional standards.


Gender did not figure prominently into issues that respondents cited as affecting morale. Leadership was regarded as the overwhelming influence. Insofar as gender was an issue, it surfaced in two areas: sexual harassment and double standards. In contrast to some highly publicized recent incidents, most of those surveyed reported that sexual harassment is not occurring in their units. Of the women who have been harassed (and considerable confusion exists about what constitutes sexual harassment), most do not report it. Typically, they regard such incidents as minor and handle them on their own. Less frequently cited reasons for not reporting include a fear of overreaction by the institution, resulting in severe punishment of the offender; a fear of backlash from coworkers; a belief that such reports weaken the case for women in the military; and a belief that nothing will happen to the offender. The perception of double standards was held most widely by men and tended to revolve around such things as different physical standards and a perceived unwillingness of male leaders to demand as much of women as they do of men. Finally, dating and sexual relationships, even those not forbidden by the regulations, can create morale problems within a unit.

Other Gender Effects

The study also provided insight into other gender issues currently prominent in the public debate. The majority of the men and women who participated in the study favor integrated basic training. However, some do prefer segregated training (25 and 39 percent, respectively, for women and men). While a small percentage (14 and 18 percent, respectively, for men and women) favored concentrating women in fewer units, the rest were split between assigning women across all units or having a gender-blind assignment process. When it comes to reporting harassment, most participants do not care whether they report to a man or a woman. But 22–35 percent do have a preference, most often preferring to report to someone of the same sex. More than half the enlisted men favor some relaxation of the combat exclusion rule, but only one third of the male officers support such a change. More than 80 percent of the women support a change, but they differ over whether service in combat positions should be voluntary.


  • [1] Researchers surveyed 14 units with new opportunities for women.
  • [2] While 91 percent of all Navy positions are open to women, current plans call for about 13 percent of the shipboard bunks to be for female berthing. Thus, the number of positions that could simultaneously be filled by women is less than 91 percent.

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