3Qs: Gender equality in the military

January 29, 2013 by Jason Kornwitz
Credit: iStock

The Pen­tagon has lifted the military's offi­cial ban on women in combat, a his­toric deci­sion that Pres­i­dent Obama said reflected "the coura­geous and patri­otic ser­vice of women through more than two cen­turies of Amer­ican his­tory." Northeastern University news office asked Martha Davis, women's rights expert and pro­fessor of law, to assess the decision's impact on gender equality both in and out of the armed forces.

The Pentagon's decision to lift the ban on women in combat has been characterized as a huge win for gender equality. Do you agree?

Yes, I do. This issue has been high on the agenda of 's groups for many years, not only because of the gen­eral mes­sage that it sends about women's capac­i­ties but also because it will enhance the careers of many women in the mil­i­tary. In addi­tion, it makes sense in terms of ensuring that our mil­i­tary is the best that it can be. We know from many studies that the more diver­sity in the room the better the decision-​​making will be—and I think that that will be borne out as women advance through the mil­i­tary ranks and are at the table in greater num­bers as impor­tant deci­sions are made.

I have been puz­zled in recent years that there has been sig­nif­i­cant sup­port nation­wide to combat dis­crim­i­na­tion in the mil­i­tary on the basis of —particularly from many uni­ver­si­ties that have restricted mil­i­tary activ­i­ties on campuses—whereas the mil­i­tary has openly dis­crim­i­nated against women for years without sig­nif­i­cant protest. The lifting of this ban is an impor­tant step for­ward for equality.

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta in a letter that the "time has come to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service." Why do you think the Pentagon and the military made this decision at this particular time?

I think there are two rea­sons. One is that the mil­i­tary has seen that it can't operate a vol­un­teer force without being able to engage the best people in the country in all oper­a­tions where they are needed. The second reason is that women in the mil­i­tary have demon­strated again and again that they can excel and con­tribute. It has become increas­ingly clear that the ban on women in combat was not only hard on the mil­i­tary, but that it was also unfair to women who could com­pete with men but were having career oppor­tu­ni­ties denied.

The biggest issue going for­ward will be ensuring that we use what we have learned from other sit­u­a­tions in which women were inte­grated into all pre­dom­i­nantly male work envi­ron­ments. We have a lot of knowl­edge from the police and fire depart­ments about how we can main­tain the highest stan­dard of quality while also being fair to indi­vid­uals who have dif­ferent capac­i­ties. For example, we have to make sure that the phys­ical tests posed by the mil­i­tary are keyed into the actual require­ments of the jobs involved.

President Obama spoke of equal rights for all in his second inaugural address. How might lifting the military's ban on women in combat align with his second-term agenda?

I was excited by Pres­i­dent Obama's ref­er­ence in his speech to a range of civil rights con­cerns. The issue of mar­riage equality will be taken up by the Supreme Court this term, so it seems that courts will ulti­mately decide that issue. In this case, it is heart­ening to see the Obama admin­is­tra­tion step up ahead of the courts and take lead­er­ship on an issue of equality where it does have con­trol and can take defin­i­tive action.

This move will also have inter­na­tional ram­i­fi­ca­tions for the U.S. Among other things, it helps clear the way for U.S. rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the Con­ven­tion on the Elim­i­na­tion of all Forms of Dis­crim­i­na­tion against Women. We are one of the very few coun­tries in the world that has not rat­i­fied this inter­na­tional treaty designed to ensure women's equality. The U.S. can now go before the inter­na­tional com­mu­nity and demon­strate that it is making progress on women's equality and that's cer­tainly a great thing.

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