Women may soon be able to serve in combat roles in the Armed Forces. The Defence Secretary has launched a review of the current policy that excludes women from ground close combat roles. It will report back by the end of 2014, a shift from the Government’s previously stated position to not review the policy before the end of operations in Afghanistan in 2014.

The vast majority of trades in the Armed Forces are open to women except ground close combat roles where the primary role is to close with and kill the enemy over short range on the ground. These are: Royal Marines; the Household Cavalry; Royal Armoured Corps; Infantry and the Royal Air Force Regiment.

The Government has looked at this before, in 2002: Women in the Armed Forces (DEP 02/1055), and in 2010: Report on the Review of the Exclusion of women from Ground close-combat roles. Both reviews concluded women should continue to be excluded from close combat roles because of concerns about how mixed gender teams would function in ground close-combat environments, and lack of evidence of how such teams might function from either field exercises or from the experience in other countries. The reason was not because of physicality. Andrew Robathan, then Defence Minister, said because of the inconclusive results of the research and the views of the service chiefs, a precautionary approach was necessary and therefore the existing policy would continue.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equality Act 2010 allows the armed forces to exclude women from those posts where the military judgement is that the employment of women would undermine and degrade combat effectiveness. The EC Equal Treatment Directive (Council Directive 76/207/EEC) also allows such exclusions but requires periodic reassessments in order to decide, in light of social developments, whether there is justification for maintaining the exclusion.

The MOD has previously suggested a further review was not required until 2018 and in January 2013 said it had no plans to review current policy before the end of combat operations in Afghanistan in December 2014.

However the Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond, told reporters on 8 May 2014 he decided a new review was necessary out of concerns at the message it sends to women that the Army is not fully open to them. This comes at a time when the Army is undergoing a significant restructure. Shadow defence secretary Vernon Coaker welcomed the review.

The number of roles open to women has gradually increased over the years. In October 1997 the Secretary of State announced the Army was to extend employment opportunities for women from 47% to 70% of posts. Figures compiled in 2006 show that 71% of posts in the Navy, 67% of posts in the Army and 96% of posts in the RAF are open to women.

More recently, women have been able to apply to become mine clearance divers and submariners since 2010 and 2011 respectively. Women currently make up 9.7% of the regular armed forces. The RAF has the largest percentage of women in total while the Army has the fewest (UK Armed Forces Annual Personnel Report, 1 April 2013).

Many hundreds of women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan in a number of roles that have taken them into a combat situation.[1] The key difference is the primary purpose of these roles is not one that meets the definition of Ground Close Combat Roles, unlike infantry units.

The MOD has acknowledged that there are a small number of support roles in the infantry in the Territorial Army that are filled by women. However the MOD says these are based in the UK and are non-deployable roles: “No female reserve personnel would be mobilised and deployed in a ground close-combat role on operations overseas.”

A number of other countries have lifted restrictions on women participating in combat units in recent years, including Australia, Canada, Germany, Israel, New Zealand and Norway. National Geographic has a useful summary of eight countries. The United States lifted its restrictions on women serving in combat units in January 2013.

The MOD commissioned a review into the experiences of other nations for its 2010 Review. The report, Women in Ground Close Combat Roles: The Experiences of other Nations and a Review of the Academic Literature, profiled 18 countries. It found that of the countries that do employ women in such units, uptake has been slow. Reasons given include the rigorous physical demands of the role, perceived lack of resilience or aggressiveness and enduring negative gender stereotyping from male colleagues.

Library Note Women in Combat: a bibliography, SN06886, provides a short reading list of relevant material.

[1]     See for example “Sergeant Beth Wilson on serving in Afghanistan”, MOD News, 7 March 2013; : “Meet Juliette, the RAF bombshell who terrified the Taliban in her fighter jet”, The Daily Mail, 27 January 2010

 Author: Louisa Brooke-Holland