U.S. Military’s Male-Dominated Culture Harms More Than Just Women

A new report identifies a continuing culture of masculinity and gender stereotypes within U.S. armed forces that limit women’s opportunities and prevent them from effectively performing their duties.

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Women make up only 16.5 percent of U.S. military personnel. (Minnesota National Guard / Flickr)

Major gender gaps persist in the U.S. armed forces, negatively impacting operational effectiveness, military culture and compliance with international law, according to a report released by the Georgetown Institute for Women Peace and Security.

The report, Culture, Gender, and Women in the Military: Implications for International Humanitarian Law Compliance, examines gender inequality in the U.S. armed forces, in particular as it relates to U.S compliance with international law, and suggests that failing to ensure women’s meaningful participation impedes operational capacity, geopolitical partnerships and prospects for lasting and legitimate peace.

The United States is obligated to ensure the meaningful participation of women in its armed forces to fulfil the “participation” pillar of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda, initiated in 2000 with the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325. Limiting the meaningful participation of women also undermines compliance with the U.S.’s non-derogable obligations under international humanitarian law, as codified in the Geneva Conventions. 

Yet women make up only 16.5 percent of overall military personnel. Participation differs greatly between the branches of the military, with the Marine Corp posting participation rates under 10 percent. The numbers decline markedly at senior levels, with only five women having reached the four-star level. 

This low participation rate is despite women increasingly being able to access a variety of jobs, specialties and skills, such as combat positions which were opened to women in 2013. The Department of Defense has also issued policies to increase women’s participation in the armed forces—its “Strategic Framework and Implementation Plan”—to fulfill the equality mandates of the Women, Peace and Security Act passed by Congress in 2017, which the report notes was a “milestone of commitment to women’s representation in the military.” 

The gender gap persists, and the report identifies a continuing culture of masculinity and gender stereotypes within the armed forces that limit women’s opportunities and prevent them from effectively performing their duties. The report notes that the armed services “adapted to the increasing number of women by emphasizing physical fitness, combat experience and Special Operations, which complicated women’s full and equal participation, attaining senior leadership positions, and wielding influence.”

The masculinized nature of the armed forces also provides an enabling environment for sexual assault and harassment. Women in the military continue to suffer from high rates of sexual assaults, with one in ten enlisted soldiers experiencing sexual assault in the past year. Underreporting is also an issue, with survivors fearful of being seen as “troublemakers.”


Women in the military continue to suffer from high rates of sexual assaults, with one in ten enlisted soldiers experiencing sexual assault in the past year.


Changing military culture to improve women’s integration and equality, and increase compliance with international law obligations, the report argues, will require fundamental strategic and operational alterations to the military status quo, including measures to eliminate the “entrenched culture of militarized masculinities” throughout the armed forces. 

To ensure women’s meaningful participation, the report suggests that women must be promoted to leadership positions and their input must be valued. To do so, the military must adopt better and more complete childcare and parental leave policies and decouple physical fitness standards from advancement. Only by incorporating women into senior ranks—thereby giving them influence throughout the chain of command—will the culture shift. 


Women must be promoted to leadership positions and their input must be valued. To do so, the military must adopt better childcare and parental leave policies and decouple physical fitness standards from advancement.


To address gender participation gaps, the report suggests that the Department of Defense should also conduct a comprehensive review of physical fitness requirements and occupational standards. De-emphasizing physical fitness would help address the “culture of toxic masculinity rooted in beliefs of physical superiority.”

To address sexual assault and harassment, the report calls for policy changes already under consideration, such as removing prosecutorial discretion from military commanders, and additional measures such as ensuring that leaders all along the chain of command are held accountable for their actions and inactions and greater civilian oversight over military norm-setters, such as special operations forces. Ending impunity for sexual misconduct is critical, but it also must be part of a broader change to military culture which is hostile towards women.

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One in ten enlisted soldiers experienced sexual assault in the past year. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Michelle Reif)

In announcing the report, Ambassador Melanne Verveer, executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women Peace and Security, called women’s meaningful participation a necessity, not an option. Ambassador Christian Wenaweser, permanent representative of Liechtenstein to the United Nations, speaking on behalf of the principality of Liechtenstein which supported the report, called for increased focus on the participation pillar of the WPS Agenda, where more progress can be made.

As part of the report launch, women with military experience offered comments on how best to ensure meaningful participation of women. Kyleanne Hunter, a U.S. Marine combat veteran, highlighted the need for new metrics for leadership success, such as social acumen and empathy. By not forcing women to adhere to traditional notions of masculinity, women will advance more quickly and their new perspectives will increase the U.S.’s overall security. 

Charity Borg, a women, peace and security planner at the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, emphasized that implementing gender-sensitive policies requires senior leader buy-in and acknowledgement that gender must be considered a key component of all operations and training. 

Both commenters emphasized the importance of eliminating impunity for sexual assault. Hunter called for greater training of military prosecutors—the Judge Advocate General’s Corps—so that they can better deal with special victims cases and gender-based violence.

Borg emphasized that, with respect to sexual assault, reporting is not a reliable metric as more reporting can be an indication of trust that commanders will take allegations seriously and confidence that retribution will not ensue. 

Finally and fundamentally, no improvements can be made without increased budgeting for gender equality measures. Budget is an indicator of institutional priorities, and the military can signal its commitment by devoting more resources to ensuring women’s meaningful participation. Borg pointed out that the Department of Defense has a workforce of two million, with only 400 gender advisors, many of them contract employees. Without institutional authority and presence, gender advisors will not have a significant impact on policies and priorities. 

The failure to ensure women’s meaningful participation not only hurts women, but also threatens the integrity and mission of the armed forces, harms national security and inhibits the U.S.’s adherence to international law. As the report notes, achieving true diversity in the U.S. military could be one of “its strengths when working across diverse environments”—but as of now, this potential remains unrealized. 

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About

Michelle Onello is a human rights lawyer and senior counsel at the Global Justice Center, a non-profit advocating for gender equality and reproductive rights in international law, and a signatory of the letter urging President Biden to repeal the Helms Amendment.