Inconsistent policies to prevent gender discrimination and sexual harassment are among the barriers to why women make up less than 10% of U.S. special operations forces, according to a government watchdog report released on Dec 15.
The number of women within Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, the military’s unified combatant command that oversees the special operations components across the services, is disproportionately low compared to the rest of the armed forces.
“Women make up less than 10 percent of SOCOM service members, compared with about 19 percent DOD-wide,” the U.S. Government Accountability Office report said. “SOCOM leaders have acknowledged existing issues of gender discrimination, sexual harassment and assault, and career impediments, and the need to do more.”
While some of the last restrictions on women’s service and occupational roles in the armed forces were removed within the last decade, including the elimination in 2013 of the regulation that kept women from serving in ground combat roles, the GAO found that barriers to integration within SOCOM still exist.
In conducting their study, the GAO spoke with officials at five special operations forces headquarters and interviewed 51 women currently or formerly serving in special operations.
“[T]here is an unconscious bias in some service members who do not realize they are discriminating against women, and there is a culture in which women are not considered equal,” one woman told the GAO, according to the report. Another added that there is a mindset in the special forces community that women are weaker and that they cannot have a family and be in service at the same time.
The report explored how a divergence between DoD-wide guidelines and those of the specific services is contributing to incidents that inhibit women from joining or succeeding with special forces units.
For example, DoD guidelines state that in joint environments discrimination and harassment complaints are to be processed through the complainant’s service. However, Army, Marine Corps and Air Force policies all assign that responsibility instead to the alleged offender’s service, the GAO noted.
Some of the other barriers cited in the report include pregnancy-related policies, parental leave and access to women’s health care.
While the report shared SOCOM is taking some steps in the right direction to identify and address its integration dilemma, it also explored the fact the command has limited access to timely, accurate and complete data on its personnel, which makes responding to incidents of discrimination or harassment a continuous challenge.
The GAO made eight recommendations, including that the military services revise their policies to align with DoD methods, that the Pentagon establish a “collaborative process” for SOCOM to access data, that DoD clarifies oversight and use of annual assessments and that it completes a comprehensive analysis of barriers to women.
DoD concurred with all the recommendations but also provided a brief comment.
Erin Logan, deputy assistant secretary of defense with special operations policy and programs, responded to the GAO report by saying she was “disappointed” with the scope of the study. She highlighted another study by the Army’s Special Operations Command that found 62% of women wanted to stay in the Army’s special operations forces and that nearly three quarters of them would support their daughters’ decision to follow in their career footsteps.
Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media