On 25 October 2018, history was made as the final barrier to women in the military service was broken down with the announcement that all roles in the armed forces are open to women recruits in the UK. The defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced on the planes of Salisbury (home to the defence training estate) that women in the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have the ability to request a transfer to an infantry role as of December this year. New applicants will further be able to apply for infantry roles from 21 December.
Three female soldiers of 2nd Battalion. Source: National Army Museum
This reform has been reigned as a victory towards furthering gender equality in one of the most controversial job sectors, expressed eloquently by Williamson himself: ‘I am delighted that for the first time in its history, our armed forces will be determined by ability alone and not gender.‘ After extensive psychical and psychological research investigating the three prominent risks women face in the front-line — musculoskeletal injury, psychological issues and impaired reproductive health — it was determined that women and men would have to pass the same physical examination that requires high levels of stamina, strength, and muscular endurance. Analysts of the defence forces have argued that this ruling has come too late given that women have been performing on the field since the 2016 restriction to women in combat was lifted under the former Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon. Women have reportedly been on the field assisting as pilots, intelligence specialists, medics, drivers in many of Britain’s campaigns in the 21st century, most notably serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since November 2016, there have been 35 women in either the serving or training stations for the Royal Armoured Corps, with several already deployed to their new combat roles in Estonia and Oman. Commander Field Army, Lieutenant General Patrick Sanders CBE DSO has also praised this legislative passing as a boost in strength to the armed forces, as he states: ‘Some of the best soldiers and most promising officers I know are women…Simply put the infantry will be more effective in war if we include the best talent our country can breed – male and female.’ Many seniors in the field have hence lauded this move as a strategically empowering decision for both security and equality in opportunity.
The journey for women in the military preceding this article of legislation has, however, come with obstacles. It was only since women were given the right to vote in 1918 that a female mobilised militant organisation was given due recognition. Queen Mary gave her name to the Women’s Auxiliary Corps, formed in World War I, which then gave inspiration to the creation of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, giving members full military status. Whilst women were gaining some momentum to prove themselves capable of military service, systematic oppression of their abilities was still enshrined in legislation, such as in the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, where continued exclusion of women from combat roles was still allowed. Providing full equality to women to compete with men for the same combat and infantry positions disbands the previous prejudice in British law.
Auxiliary Territorial Service parade at HQ Eastern Command Hounslow. Source: National Army Museum
Unfortunately, it cannot be guaranteed that this law will automatically fix all gender inequality faced in the army from here on out. Such a prominent change to social structure within the army will not come without criticism and scepticism from those currently serving and those examining the legislation. Analysts have conferred that although women can apply to more roles in the military, it won’t translate to a significantly higher uptake of women serving as they are less likely to pass the physical tests than men. Only 1 in 10 people in the armed forces are women, and forecasters predict little change to this number as the tests disadvantage women by 20 to 40 percent. Kate Medina, who formerly served in the Army reserve, highlights the biological difference between men and women, concluding that women are naturally weaker and less capable of front-line combat. She states that women have 2/3 less upper body strength when it comes to hand-on-hand combat, and that they are twice as susceptible to injury. Critics also raise concerns that women on the front-line ruin social cohesion and create tension as it challenges social attitudes of existing infantry soldiers. Colonel Richard Kemp, a retired officer, has expressed that the new law ‘would cost lives and lead to divisiveness‘, slowing down the operation of special armed forces. On the contrary, studies such as the ‘Women in Ground Close Combat 2014’ report have disproved these ideas, concluding that ‘strong leadership’ is the most dependant variable of cohesion, rather than gender ratio.
Ultimately, it is naïve to assume that this new piece of legislation will automatically diminish the enshrined gender bias and inequality faced in the British armed forces. What we can celebrate is that the military has taken a large step towards achieving equal opportunity in its recruiting process, and that capability difference is no longer assumed based on gender. Whilst this move may receive the natural backlash and cynicism any significant socially challenging law will, it resembles a positive and modern day progression towards advancing the professional opportunities of women. It is triumphs such as these that drive all women to fight their own front-lines.