Hannah Bryce
Assistant Head, International Security
Vix AndertonHead of Programmes, Social Development Direct; Former Royal Air Force Intelligence Officer
The decision to open these positions to women is welcome, but British forces now face a series of physical, cultural and practical challenges to its implementation.
Female and male US Marine recruits listen to instructions during boot camp at MCRD Parris Island. Photo by Getty Images.Female and male US Marine recruits listen to instructions during boot camp at MCRD Parris Island. Photo by Getty Images.

Prime Minister David Cameron announced at the recent NATO summit in Warsaw that the ban on women serving in ground close combat roles in the British armed forces is to be lifted. The announcement follows a recommendation from Chief of the General Staff General Sir Nick Carter and extensive research into the physiological risks to women serving in such roles, and brings the UK in line with its major allies.

While the decision is a welcome one, it marks the beginning of what will need to be a well-managed process to ensure that the integration of women into ground close combat roles is a success. There are physical, cultural and practical challenges to its effective implementation.

The announcement was accompanied by the publication of a report on health risks to women in combat roles which found that female personnel are currently at higher risk of musculoskeletal injury, particularly after childbirth. It also highlights a higher risk of reporting and treatment of mental health disorders in female personnel.

Neither of these risks are unique to women, however. As the leading cause of medical downgrading and discharge for all personnel, revised physical training and injury prevention strategies will need to focus on reducing the risk of such injuries to both men and women. The report also notes men may under-report mental disorders, so strategies to support the prevention and treatment of mental health problems must acknowledge differences between male and female behaviours, without unduly targeting female personnel.

While physiological findings are important, the process will also need to address cultural barriers.  This decision will be far from universally popular within the armed forces and will require proactive management at all levels of leadership to be successful. This does not amount to positive discrimination but should recognize that the integration of female personnel needs to be carefully thought through and managed to ensure a genuinely level playing field, and that women entering these roles do so set for success rather than failure. 

This success will be decided in large part by the leadership’s commitment to implementing this decision and how effectively diversity is promoted throughout all ranks of the army. This will require positive engagement of senior and middle management, as well as a robust zero-tolerance approach to discriminatory behavior and a comprehensive education programme for existing personnel. The findings of a report into sexual harassment in the army in July 2015 suggested a culture where sexual harassment is common, but reporting mechanisms and means of recourse are limited by the workplace culture, if not the administration. This is an issue that impacts both men and women in the army, but will be crucial to address if a culture of inclusivity, rather than masculinity, is to be nurtured.

British forces will also have to consider how to recruit for these roles. Here, the UK can draw on the experiences of other countries that have already lifted the ban on women serving in combat roles. An Australian review, for example, considered international trends and lessons and found common themes and recommendations for the successful inclusion of women in the armed forces. These included increasing not only the overall number of women joining the army but their retention, promotion and employment in a broad range of occupational roles, including combat roles.  Recruitment has also been cited as a challenge by the Canadian military, where women still only make up 2.4 per cent of regular force combat arms and less than 15 per cent of the overall army, despite having opened up combat roles to women in 1989. In the UK, women make up just 9 per cent of the army’s regular forces and less than 12 per cent of its officers.

The new policy can only succeed if it is embraced as an opportunity to enhance operational effectiveness and maximize talent rather than treated as a problem that needs to be solved. Efforts now need to be focused on delivering the government’s decision and creating the conditions for its success.

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