Two million US women are now veterans. During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the United States military attempted the integration of women into the military in unprecedented numbers (15 percent of service members during these conflicts were women), opening combat and leadership roles to women for the first time. Yet, although women distinguished themselves as leaders and soldiers, Emily King of the Minnesota Women’s Press noted that “service women often feel disrespected and devalued, and many face discrimination.” Benedict Carey of the New York Times and King agree on two of the main factors that make life in the military so hard for women:
- A sense of isolation for women that undermines their confidence and can lead to depression and suicide
- The way the military treats sexual trauma, an experience that is more common for women than for men in the military
Isolation—Why Does It Happen?The isolation women face in the military is not unlike what happens to women in other male-dominated industries and organizations, as described in my book, New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together. As in other male-dominated organizations, women often see other women as their competition and do not support or bond with each other. King quoted military women who said, “Women generally don’t bond with other women,” and “There’s a sense of competition [between women] . . . fed by their superiors comparing them with other women rather than with their male peers.” While this dynamic of competition is not unique to the military, the impact on women under conditions of deployment and war may be especially severe. In addition, women in the military also have difficulty bonding with their male peers because they must all live together. Fear of rumors of romantic alliances, along with the potential misinterpretation of friendly gestures by a male peer, results in more isolation for women. It is not surprising, then, that their experience of exclusion has led to an alarming level of hopelessness and alienation felt among many women in the military and a resulting increase in the suicide rate for female soldiers during and after deployment. The rate of depression after deployment is also higher for women than men. The exception is for women who found companionship with other women while in the military.
Sexual AssaultKing reported that according to government statistics, “About one in four women experience unwanted sexual contact in the military, ranging from inappropriate touching to rape.” Because reporting sexual assault is discouraged by the structure and procedures of the military, the percentages could be as high as three in four women. The chain of command system of determining guilt means that cases are not reported to civilian authorities, and a highly sexualized boy’s club culture means that perpetrators are seldom held accountable. Consequently, little support exists for those reporting sexual assaults. While Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, of New York, proposed a bill in 2014 that would move these cases out of military courts to prevent commanders from making decisions about prosecuting subordinates for rape and sexual assault, it did not pass in the Senate.
What Needs to Change?The military needs to recognize the challenges faced by women that men do not face. To create a healthier and more supportive environment in which women can continue to excel without enduring the psychological and emotional damage that results from isolation and sexual assault, the military needs to make several changes:
- Encourage supportive environments where women can bond and be supportive of each other. Organizations do this by promoting the formation and functioning of affinity groups.
- Reward a wide range of leadership styles. As in corporations, while women can adopt a masculine leadership style, this style doesn’t play to the strengths of many women. Having to pretend you are someone you’re not, especially in the stressful context of military deployment, can take a toll.
- Support passage and implementation of laws and policies that would move prosecution of sexual assault cases to civilian authorities to restore credibility and accountability.