There are more than 18,000 women currently serving in the combined Armed Services: the largest number of women in the forces since the end of the Second World War. Yet women are still barred from a third of all available roles because of their gender.
The ban on front-line female staff has experienced a gentle creep towards equality over the last decade. Female medics and intelligence officers regularly carry out front-line patrols, and there are women serving in Afghanistan where female civilians can only be searched by other women. But despite this shift, the ban on women in the infantry remains. The message? We’ll use you, but only if we’re forced to. Currently women are excluded from the Royal Marines, Household Cavalry, Royal Armoured Corps, Infantry and RAF Regiment.
The exclusion of women from specific roles in the military is covered by the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, and is subject to a review every eight years under the requirements of a European Community Equal Treatment Directive. The next review is due in 2018 but has been brought forward by Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, who has tasked Sir Peter Wall, head of the British Army, to present his findings by the end of this year. His predecessor, Lord Dannatt, commented that keeping women out of combat roles should be a ‘point of principle’. “To be in a unit that is given orders to attack a hill, to attack a town, to attack a village, that is a role not for women,” he said.
Why on earth not? To write off fifty percent of the population in this way is a shocking indictment on the modern army.
The arguments against women in close-combat roles are generally three-fold:
Firstly, women aren’t fit enough or strong enough to do the job. It’s pointless arguing with nature, certainly, and there are undoubtedly far fewer women who would meet the entry criteria than there are men. But isn’t that precisely what such criteria are there for? If fitness requirements are set at a realistic level for the job in question, then the gender of the applicant shouldn’t make any difference at all. If they’re good enough; fit enough; strong enough; they get in.
Secondly, there seems to be a concern that it simply isn’t ‘a job for girls’: that women are just not emotionally strong enough to kill someone in cold blood. It is an extraordinary generalisation and says little for the army’s recruitment and training methods, if the potential of their troops is based solely on the gender of the participants. Just like men, there are some women who are strong enough to kill, and some women who would struggle to step on a spider. For the army to make a blanket assumption on the capabilities of women is patronising and out-dated.
Finally comes the most extraordinary argument of all. Women shouldn’t join the infantry because men find it impossible to work with the women without either wanting to protect them, or wanting to have sex with them. So the British Army has a problem with men who objectify women, seeing them either as fragile girls unable to take care of themselves, or as bits of skirt ripe for the taking. And yet somehow the fault for that lies with women, who are penalised for their unwitting crime by legalised discrimination. (Presumably the army still prefers to gloss over the possibility that men might also want to have sex with their male colleagues…)
The combined services do an incredible job in the face of much adversity, and their operational effectiveness should always be their top priority. Women shouldn’t be allowed to join the infantry merely because of political correctness, or out of some kind of tokenism, and neither should we ever introduce any kind of targets for the male/female divide. But it is wrong to write off an entire gender. If women don’t want to work in close combat, that’s fine, but those who do, and are fit enough and strong enough to do so, should be given the opportunity.
Clare Mackintosh is a freelance feature-writer, columnist and crime novelist, and a former Police Inspector. Follow her on Twitter @claremackint0sh or read her blog at www.claremackintosh.com/blog