George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School

The Fight for Equality Continues: Women Remain the Minority in Senior Ranks of the Military

Written by Summer 2023 M-VETS Student Advisor Amanda S. Nhek.


Women have always found a way to serve their country. Whether it be disguising themselves as men during the Revolutionary War or flying warplanes in modern times, they continue to contribute by any means necessary. The fight for equal opportunity is nothing new to women in the military. They undoubtedly had to overcome a multifaceted set of issues that have stemmed from the onset of our country’s existence. Albeit the roles of women have changed over time, their fight and passion to serve our country has remained unchanged.

Despite the military’s long history and tradition of being male-dominated, women have slowly integrated into every branch of service. Women now make up approximately 17% of the Armed Forces. Although great strides have been made, women are still underrepresented when it comes to filling leadership positions. The unique barriers and obstacles that women face unequivocally contribute to their minority status in the senior ranks.

Change is on the horizon when it comes to promoting women into leadership positions. However, several issues must be addressed before women can ascend into these positions. Although the Department of Defense (DoD) continues to strive and implement new policies to support women in the military, the organizational culture and climate needs much improvement.


Women have served in the military for more than 200 years.[1] Dating back to the Revolutionary War, women traveled with the Continental Army to provide care for injured soldiers, cook meals, and do laundry. Nearly 20,000 women assisted soldiers in the Civil War and more than 3,000 women were deployed to British hospitals in France during World War I.[2] However, women were very limited in their ability to serve as members of the military until the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act was passed.

In 1948, Congress passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act allowing women to serve in all four branches of the military. However, the Act limited the number of women to 2% of the total number of enlistees per branch. In addition, the Act authorized the discharge of women if they were to become pregnant. Furthermore, women were not permitted to serve in combat roles or command men. However, in 1972, women gained the right to fulfill roles in commanding units that included men.

In 1988, the Risk Rule essentially “excluded women from non-combat units or missions if the risks of exposure to direct combat, hostile fire or capture were equal to or greater than the risk in the units they supported.”[3] However, in 1994, President Bill Clinton rescinded the Risk Rule and permitted women to serve in any role except those positions that included direct combat on the ground. However, this policy excluded women from approximately 200,000 positions.[4] Then in 2013, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women engaging in direct ground combat. As a result, more women were allowed to acquire ranks previously unobtainable due to their lack of combat experience.

Roughly ten years since permitting women to engage in combat, the number of women holding leadership positions has increased.[5] However, women are still significantly underrepresented when it comes to holding high-ranking roles.[6] There are several issues that continue to contribute to the lack of female senior leadership.


First, recruitment and retention of female service members has been a constant issue. Unfortunately, women are 28% more likely to withdraw from the military than their counterparts.[7] Therefore, it is very difficult to promote women into leadership positions if they do not have very long careers in the military. In addition, the recruitment rate of women compared to men is significantly lower.[8] The Joint Advertising, Market Research & Studies program found that parents’ perception of the military is that women are not treated adequately.[9] Therefore, this has a discouraging effect on their daughters when it comes to enlisting.[10]

Gender stereotyping and workplace discrimination have contributed to a toxic work environment for many women in the military. In a 2018 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members, it was recorded that women “rated every aspect of their unit climate lower than did male service members and rated workplace hostility as higher.”[11] Furthermore, the DoD reported that ““sexual harassment is a leading factor affecting the unit climate on sexual assault.”[12] In 2021, approximately 36,000 service members were victims of sexual violence.[13] Of that total, 19,200 were reported by women.[14]

Retaliation is also a real and prevalent fear that numerous female service members experience. For example, 28% of women faced retaliation after a sexual assault.[15] Moreover, a third of women who reported a sexual assault were discharged within seven months.[16] In 2022, only 5% of all reports of sexual assault were tried by a court martial.[17] Even more alarming is only 2% of the offenders tried before the court were actually convicted of a nonconsensual sex offense.[18]

The lack of trust and faith in the military to protect women from sexual violence has contributed to the low retention rate. For instance, 1 in 4 victims of sexual violence took some form of action to leave the military. [19] Furthermore, 60% of women in the military don’t think that the military as a whole will ensure their safety.[20] If full integration of women in the military is going to be a reality, then the military must earn back the trust of women.


The future success of the U.S. Armed Forces depends not only on recruiting women but also on retaining women who are currently serving. The Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) has played an enormous role in the “recruitment, retention, employment, integration, well-being and treatment of women in the Armed Forces.”[21] As of 2022, the DoD has implemented “approximately 97 percent of the committee’s recommendations.”[22] It is without a doubt that the DoD is putting policies into place to allow women to climb the ranks, however, continued effort is needed to promote equity within leadership.


The importance of female role models is paramount to inspiring the next generation of female soldiers. The DoD could implement more mentorship programs in all branches of the military. The Sisters in Arms program is a prime example as the Army provides a mentorship program that supports women of all ranks as they progress through their careers. Additional resources to fund and promote these mentors and support groups for women will hopefully assist with the retention of female service members. In addition, more women will likely join the military and ascend through the ranks if more systems are in place to them help them navigate their career paths.

Family Care

A report by the 2020 Congressional Research Service found that a “larger percentage of female Servicemembers and veterans have cited childcare issues as a major stressor associated with their time in service relative to their male counterparts.”[23] The military could implement a more liberal leave policy that would allow women to take more time off in the event their child was sick. In addition, the DoD should look to implement even more lactation rooms in military facilities in efforts to accommodate nursing mothers. Many female service members also face several challenges when it comes to pregnancies. It is very difficult for women to pass retention standards following the birth of a child. The Federal Employee Paid Leave Act, that went into effect in 2019, limits maternity leave to 12 weeks.[24] However, the military should consider extending the maternity leave policy to a full year. This would give women adequate time to recover physically and emotionally to be able to continue on with their careers.

Improving Organizational Culture

Additional oversight is needed to help monitor and ensure compliance with the DoD workplace policies. The military could put more of an emphasis on leadership development to foster a more inclusive environment. The military can change an individual’s behavior, but changing someone’s character is an extremely difficult challenge. Therefore, the military should focus on workplace expectations and consequences of bad behavior. It is very important that the military allocate a substantial number of resources to educate and train its leaders on how to identify and deal with inappropriate behavior.

The military should require more robust reporting systems in order for soldiers to feel more comfortable disclosing instances of poor military climate. It is not enough to just train military personnel on appropriate workplace expectations; it is equally important for leaders to be held accountable for a poor command climate. Further investigation and action against those in leadership positions will likely curb the prevalence of an unhealthy military culture.


 Regardless of the time in history, women have been a staple in the U.S. Armed Forces. The DoD has made tremendous advancements in their efforts to provide women an avenue to advance in the military. Nevertheless, it is immensely important that women continue to push pass barriers and advocate for equal opportunity.

 [1] Danielle DeSimone, Over 200 Years of Service: The History of Women in the U.S. Military, United Service Organizations, (Feb, 23, 2023),

[2] Id.

[3] The Risk Rule, N.Y. Times (Aug. 15, 2009),“excluded%20women, in%20the%20units%20they%20supported.”

[4] Leon Panetta & Shelly Stoneman, It’s been 10 years since women were allowed to serve in combat. There’s a lot left to accomplish, The Hill, (Jan. 1, 2023), accomplish/#:~:text=Yet%20while%20American%20women%20had,artillery%20and%20other%20combat%20roles.

[5] See Emma Moore, Women in Combat: Five-Year Status Update, Center for a New American Security, (Mar. 31, 2020), update#:%7E:text=The%201994%20rescinding%20of%20the,submarines%20and%20some%20small%20vessels.

[6] Panetta & Stoneman, supra note 4.

[7] Corey Dickstein, Women are making up more of the military, but are more likely to leave early, new report says, Stars and Stripes, (May 20, 2020),

[8] Panetta & Stoneman, supra note 4.

[9] Moore, supra note 5.

[10] Id.

[11] Allison Abbe, The Balancing Act for Female Officers, War Room Online Journal, (Mar. 5, 2020),

[12] Military Sexual Assault Fact Sheet, Protect our Defenders, (Updated July 2023),

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] RL Beckman, C Farris, LH Jaycox, TL Schell, Perceived Retaliation Against Military Sexual Assault Victims, RAND National Defense Research Institute (2021),

[16] Department of Defense (DoD) Inspector General, Evaluation of the Separation of Service Members Who Made a Report of Sexual Assault (2016), 088.pdf.

[17] Supra note 12.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Panetta & Stoneman, supra note 4.

[22] Id.

[23]  Kamarck, Kristy N. (2020, March 19). Military Child Development Program: Background and Issues. (CRS Report No. R45288).

[24] H.R.564 – 117th Congress (2021-2022): Comprehensive Paid Leave for Federal Employees Act, H.R.564, 117th Cong. (2021),