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Why getting more female troops into Special Operations will take time

As recently released data from the military services has shown, the participation of women in elite special operations roles ― and even entry into the training pipeline for such roles ― remains a rarity some eight years after these roles were first opened.

The military is starting to take notice: a wide-ranging Army special operations study released in 2023 highlighted barriers to service, from ill-fitting body armor to “benevolent sexism” keeping women on the sidelines.

In September 2023, the congressionally appointed Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services unanimously approved a recommendation, still pending, that the Secretary of Defense should establish a working group focused on women in the special operations community “to provide strategic oversight on and direction of current integration plans and challenges, metrics, lessons learned, and best practices.”

This, the committee wrote in its recommendation, “would enhance recruitment, integration, growth, and retention of women in SOF.”

Some women who have served in elite and specialized military roles told Military Times they applauded these efforts. But they also pointed to a factor in the integration of women into special operations that was harder to manage: time.

Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain and co-chair of the board of directors at Service Women’s Action Network, said it was instructive to look at the integration of women into naval fighter aviation roles, a process that began in 1994.

While women still remain dramatically underrepresented in the fighter community, the presence of a female fighter pilot in a ready room isn’t as novel as it once was.

“I think a lot of it is a function of time and acclimation on the part of the men and the women,” Manning said of integrating women into new roles. “The women want to feel welcomed and supported. The men want to feel like, this isn’t somebody that’s slipping in here who really can’t cut the mustard.”

For naval aviation in particular, the process of cultural integration took some 15 years, Manning said.

The 1991 Tailhook scandal, in which dozens of women reported being sexually assaulted by fighter pilots at a professional symposium in Las Vegas, revealed an underlying culture of misogyny and disrespect for women.

Beyond that, though, Manning said she appreciated that developing trust in those entering new roles took time.

“You’ve got to understand it’s going to take time, and you’ve got to let them get whatever beefs they have off their chest,” Manning said of male service members skeptical that women could cut it in new roles. “And you’ve got to show them that not only can women do it, but it’s even better when you do have [them] around … because they bring an extra dimension.”

Because confidence in the abilities of military team members is so critical, Manning emphasized the care special operations leaders needed to take not to lower qualifying standards or to be perceived as doing so.

But, she said, there were also steps the military might consider to lower risk to women attempting to make it in special operations.

Attempting to enter a training pipeline with a high attrition rate ― no woman has made it completely through training to become a Marine Raider or Navy SEAL, for example ― carries the risk of consuming valuable months in service that could be used for career advancement and missing out on opportunities to lead.

Manning didn’t offer a specific proposal about how to incentivize women to attempt special operations, but said it was something leaders should keep in mind.

“If [women] are thinking, maybe I want to do this as a career, it might not be their best choice,” Manning said.

Lisa Jaster, one of the first three women to graduate from Army Ranger School in 2015 and the first female Reserve soldier to do so, told Military Times the physicality needed to fill operator roles takes many women out of the running from the start.

A competitor in Brazilian jiu-jitsu who worked in offshore construction management prior to earning her Ranger tab, Jaster argues that girls and young women are disadvantaged by lower physical standards during physical training in their school years: such as hangs instead of pullups, and pushups from their knees instead of from their toes.

“It’s, ‘Hey, if we’re being trained on one set of standards, and then we’re tested on another set of standards, I’m just not going to line up for the test,’” Jaster said. “Why would I?”

In addition to more equitable and challenging physical training prior to the military, Jaster said she would like to see more effective recruiting among the young women who do have the physical acumen to succeed.

While the military services have said they do recruit among female athletes and sports programs, lots of promising candidates are still slipping through the cracks, she said.

“I actually trained Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with this young 17-year-old high school senior,” Jaster said. “She’s as hard as woodpecker lips; she’s as tough as can be. And nobody’s talking to her about the military.”

Jaster, who was 37 and a mother of two when she graduated Ranger School, said her advice to women considering the challenge of special operations is that they are not alone, or “weird” for their interest in the field.

“You might not find people like you at the corner store,” she said. “But when I went to Ranger School, there were 19 of us there that were all driven. We weren’t competitive; we were sisters in arms. And we would support each other to this day.”

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