David Cameron recently announced that from November, all roles in the UK Armed Forces (stand fast Catholic Padres) will be open to men and women. This seems like a logical step to take in order to improve combat effectiveness. Gender aside, if you increase and diversify the talent pool you have to choose from then it follows that you increase the talent and mix of skills you recruit. Marvellous. Except, not everyone thinks this is great, including certain key senior military figures. This is because the move will be felt as a direct challenge to the masculine status quo that still prevails in the British military.
The UK military, whether we like it or not, is an inherently masculine institution. Only ten percent of its workforce are women. In a 2015 study, approximately 40 percent of women in the Armed Forces admitted experiencing sexual harassment ranging from unwelcome comments to physical assault. And whilst there are a handful of women now holding senior, influential military commands, I am yet to hear one of them concede to experiencing sexual harassment themselves. This either means that women who experience harassment leave before they get promoted or that these particular women are not speaking out for fear of rocking the boat. I fear the later even more than the former.
For many men, the current military provides the necessary resources to construct a masculine gender identity. This is especially true of close combat units such as the Infantry and Royal Marines which allow men to cast themselves as more physically able, willing to take risks, self-disciplined and aggressive than their non-military counterparts. This identity is also significantly bolstered by the exclusion of women and anything deemed 'female.'
Yet this doesn't work as an argument. It's not okay to disagree with allowing women to serve in close combat roles because they will disrupt masculine hegemony. But it is okay to disagree if it's got the potential to compromise operational effectiveness, which is why this line of argument comes up whenever something happens that doesn't concur with the culturally entrenched notion of how men and women should act. Including women in close combat units will result in standards being lowered, so the argument goes, despite this not being even being mentioned as a possibility. But it's an easy swipe to take and preys on idea that men and women are biologically different. Yet, whilst the biology of men and women does differ, it is only different in terms of two discrete categories when considering the reproductive organs (and even then the distinction is overly simplistic and doesn't take into account intersex conditions). We are different on a continuum where things like hormone levels and stature are concerned. Whilst there may be some women who will never compete an 8 mile yomp with a 25kg pack no matter how hard they try, there are some men who won't either and some women who certainly will.
Another argument deployed to explain how women in close combat will compromise operational effectiveness is that the men they work with will have an irresistible urge to stop and help them if they get injured on ops, thus compromising the mission. Really? If it wasn't so offensive to the men in the military who have been trained to the highest of standards then it would be laughable. Men are no more mechanical slaves to prehistorical desires than women are damsels in distress. Moreover, if for some reason this was to happen and a man did take an unnecessary risk to rescue a comrade because she was a woman, then this would clearly be a training issue. I'd want to know why the soldier wasn't disciplined enough to follow procedure.
Similar is the argument that woman don't have the same 'killer instinct' as men and would therefore do poorly in face-to-face combat. There are two things wrong with this. Firstly, it is an assumption based on gendered socialisation. Thanks to an innate desire to survive, all human beings are born with the potential to kill if the stakes are high enough. During war, the stakes are about as high as they get. When a solider comes under enemy fire he or she is going to fight back, not necessarily because they have a 'killer instinct' but because they have a survival instinct. Secondly, if you think about it logically, do we really want our soldiers to have a 'killer instinct'? Rules of engagement (ROE) are complex but essentially don't allow a soldier to attack the enemy unless the enemy is posing a direct threat. Rightly or wrongly, soldiers have been charged for unlawful killing during war because they didn't follow the ROE. Being prepared to kill when necessary is vital, having a 'killer instinct' is risky.
There is not going to be a sudden influx of women into close combat roles just because they are allowed to join. Many women won't want to. Others won't meet the physical standards. It will be a gradual process taking place over several years. That's not to say the UK Armed Forces won't be changed by this decision. In a modern military that seeks to liberate those who are oppressed in other parts of the world, there is no place for prejudice and discrimination within its own units. There is no place for a culture where either women or men feel pressurised to conform to masculine ideals. Allowing both sexes to serve in all units throughout the Armed Forces is a step closer to achieving a military that is truly progressive.