Women fight for militaries around the world but rarely if ever are allowed to take the jobs most closely associated with soldiering – those focused on ground combat in close quarters and even hand to hand. That may be about to change in Australia.
A policy overhaul to be decided by Cabinet within weeks would remove all gender barriers from the military next year, arguably making the Australian Defense Force the world’s leader on gender equality.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the first woman to lead Australia, and Defense Minister Stephen Smith are among those calling for the change. Smith has said that “what you do in the forces should be determined by your physical and intellectual capability or capacity, not simply on the basis of sex.”
Questions remain, however, about whether troops and the public are ready for women to serve in combat roles.
If Australia’s Cabinet supports the policy change it would be in place by the end of 2012. That could give Australian women a chance to qualify for infantry roles in Afghanistan before 2014, when the country plans to withdraw its 1,550 troops.
Gender boundaries have been steadily retreating in Australian defence services for years.
The government announced last month that women sailors will be allowed to bunk with men in submarines. Previously women had to sleep in female-only six-berth cabins. The shift will enable more women to fill a shortage of submariners by allowing more flexibility in assigning crews.
Australian women also can pilot attack helicopters and fighter jets. The positions closed off to them are mostly in the army, and include infantry, parachute, commando, special air services, artillery, tank and armoured cavalry.
Australia’s current policy on women in the military is similar to those of other countries in Afghanistan, including the United States, Britain, Canada and New Zealand. None allow women in roles where their primary function is to fight enemies at close range, though women are trained to be combat-ready and can potentially find themselves in such gunfights.
Even Israel, which drafts both men and women and is often cited as an example of gender equality in the military, does not allow women to serve in front line ground units such as infantry, armour or special forces.
The Australian government announced its commitment to removing gender barriers after a sex scandal broke at the officers’ academy in April. A female cadet accused a male cadet of secretly filming the pair having sex and showing it two his friends via the internet. Two male cadets were charged by police over the incident.
Critics say the government overreacted by ordering six inquiries into issues including the scandal, the treatment of women in the academy and career pathways for women in defence.
Australian defence officials are devising a series of tests to determine whether an individual soldier is physically capable of coping with combat conditions regardless of gender.
The current combat fitness test includes climbing a 16-foot (5-metre) rope twice without touching the ground while carrying a rifle and wearing a helmet. A soldier wearing a helmet also must carry a soldier similarly dressed over his shoulder while carrying both their weapons 160 yards (150 meters).
There has been no suggestion that those requirements could be reduced, but Neil James, executive director of the Australian Defense Association, said that overseas experience shows that less than 3 per cent of women soldiers would be able to pass them. Women most often fail on the rope climbing because it requires considerable upper body strength, he said.
The association, a respected security think-tank, said there are biomechanical differences between the sexes – differences in muscle distribution, centres of gravity and rate of recovery from physical exertion – that make even physically strong women more vulnerable in combat.
In peacetime training exercises, Australian women soldiers are at least five times more likely than men to be incapacitated by injuries to backs, knees and ankles because of biomechanical differences in load-bearing abilities, the ADA said, citing Defense Department records.
“For a range of operational, moral and occupational health and safety reasons, it would not be fair to our female soldiers to expect them to fight male soldiers continually in a person-to-person physical sense,” the ADA said in a recent issue paper.
The ADA compared combat roles to the sports world. It said there were no serious calls for women to be included in top-tier football teams, for instance, and noted that battlefields are tougher environments.
Eva Cox, spokeswoman for the feminist lobby group Women’s Electoral Lobby, dismissed the ADA arguments as “a lot of rubbish.”
“To decide that women can’t do something because they’re women and men can’t do something because they’re men is just ridiculous,” Cox said.
“The basis of the decision should be your physical capacity to meet certain criteria, not whether you’ve got particular chromosomes,” she added.
Cox believes that Australian society now supports eliminating gender barriers, even in the army, though media commentators have been split on the subject.
Even without serving in the same intense combat roles, Australian women returning from overseas deployments have been referred for mental health treatment at double the rate of their male comrades, a recent Defense Department study found.
The military has been publicly supportive of the new regime to test combat readiness, but not all soldiers are keen on the idea of women serving in such roles as the infantry.
Army Cpl. Stuart Heeney wrote in a letter to “The Soldiers’ Army” newspaper recently that women should remain barred from infantry units because “it will change the dynamic due to human nature.”
“Blokes will be more interested in impressing women than focusing on their job,” he wrote.
The almost 8,000 women in Australia’s army, navy and air force account for less than 14 per cent of total troop numbers and commanders are keen to recruit more.