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On January 24, 2013, the U.S. Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff signed an order rescinding a long standing barrier blocking military women from assignment to direct ground combat units or occupational specialties. While widely considered to be a milestone advancement for military women, the order seems somewhat semantic as American women have been serving in combat since Molly Corbin, often referred to as Molly Pitcher, took the place of her mortally wounded husband in the battle of Fort Washington in 1776. More recently, women have served in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, albeit in non-direct ground combat occupations such as pilots, logisticians, and military policewoman. As of January 2013, 152 female service members had died in Iraq and Afghanistan, while another 946 were wounded according to U.S. Department of Defense statistics. The order is undeniably a step in the right direction for gender equality and liberty amongst female service members; however, an organizational and operational change of this magnitude will not come without serious challenges.
Immediately following the signing of the order, it seems as though the conversation (in the media, around the dinner table and water cooler) continues to center around the feasibility or merits of allowing women into direct combat occupations. But now that the order has been given, the discussion of the feasibility or merits of doing so is moot. The integration is going to happen so the discussion must shift to the best way in which to implement the new policy. The law enforcement arena, particularly at the state and local levels, has struggled with many of the same challenges the U.S. military now has before it. While difficult and certainly not yet universally achieved throughout the law enforcement realm, strategies for gender equality and integration into male-dominated occupations like that of police officer have been the accepted aim for decades. Consequently, the successes and failures experienced in efforts to fully integrate women into police officer roles may help to inform military leaders as they endeavor to manage this change and successfully mitigate the seemingly inevitable complications that will accompany it.
Perhaps the question most central to the integration of female service members into previously barred military occupations is whether women possess both the physical stamina and emotional fortitude required to endure highly stressful combat engagements. The law enforcement community has struggled with this question; yet, female police officers have time and again proven they are capable of dealing with the stressors associated with situations similar to those found in combat. An apropos example is the actions of police sergeant Kimberly Munley who responded to the mass shooting at the Fort Hood Army base in 2009. In what can only be considered to be amongst the most extreme of law enforcement situations, an active shooter event, she unhesitatingly responded to the scene of the shooting and engaged the shooter, despite being twice wounded by him, in an attempt to stop his murderous rampage. This is but one of countless examples in which female police officers have demonstrated their ability to perform both heroically and effectively in combat situations.
Existing research provides a rather comprehensive list of barriers to effective gender integration, a few of which are sexual harassment, gender discrimination, stereotyping, misdirected or ineffective policies, the threat women pose to the existing “machismo” image, and paternalism, to include the inculcation of new male members into the existing gender-biased organizational culture. While the source of many of these barriers may be societal in nature (i.e., engrained within members prior to entering the organization), the long-standing male-dominated cultures of both the military and public safety organizations have both tolerated and, at times, encouraged them. Notwithstanding that, law enforcement organizations continue to make concerted efforts to develop and apply strategies that will eliminate such cultural biases and the persistent police officer gender gap.
In an effort to lead widespread culture change within the law enforcement profession in the late 1990s, the International Association of Chiefs of Police empaneled a committee of its members to examine the role of women in policing and to provide recommendations for greater inclusion and equality in the profession. The committee then designed and fielded a survey to a random sampling of its members. The committee’s findings lead to a series of recommendations for changes in policy, recruitment, and organizational cultural. The recommendations included:
Another example of the law enforcement community’s effort to close its gender gap is found in the best-practice standards of its professional accrediting bodies. Perhaps the most influential law enforcement accrediting body is the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc., which accredits state and local law enforcement agencies throughout the nation and internationally. Its law enforcement accreditation program dedicates several standards to addressing racial and gender bias within recruitment, hiring, and promotion activities. It goes so far as to require every agency seeking accreditation to develop a recruitment strategy for realizing a workforce that mirrors the ethnic, racial, and gender make-up of the community it serves.
This article highlights but a couple of examples of how the law enforcement community has tried, and continues to try, to successfully navigate the path the U.S. military now finds itself on. It may be the path less traveled but is not the path never before traveled. The law enforcement community has had its own individual successes and failures along the way and unquestionably still has a ways to go, but invaluable knowledge has been gleaned from the experience. Accordingly, U.S. military leaders should seriously study the efforts and outcomes of the law enforcement community’s gender integration initiatives as a thorough understanding of this knowledge and experience can only assist them in successfully implementing this new policy.
Author: Eric R. Watters is a Ph.D. student in Public Administration at Florida Atlantic University and a member of ASPA. Email: [email protected]