Special Operations forces are known for overcoming dangerous obstacles to complete their missions. But the Pentagon still hasn’t overcome barriers that hinder women in the elite units, years after ordering complete gender integration.
Despite a Defense Department directive that took effect in 2016 to “fully integrate women without compromising our readiness, morale or war-fighting capacity,” less than one-tenth of the 78,000 U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) members are women, compared with about 19 percent military-wide, according to a watchdog report.
Numerical parity between men and women in special ops is not necessarily the goal, even among those who advocate for women in the military. But the women who have taken those jobs face widespread discrimination, harassment and sexual assault, issues also confronting women in the military generally.
Particularly appalling is the high percentage of Special Operations women who told the Government Accountability Office (GAO) they were sexually assaulted while on active duty.
Defense “has yet to complete a comprehensive evaluation of barriers to women or developed a plan of action for addressing identified barriers” in Special Ops, the GAO reported in a December audit.
Beyond the barriers, “it’s a very specialized career field,” said Lorry Fenner, director of government relations for the Service Women’s Action Network and a retired Air Force colonel. “So, I do not think it is realistic” to expect parity.
But there is much room for improvement in the military as a whole, including making Special Operations forces more attractive to women.
Despite “incremental progress,” the GAO said military leaders recognize that “forms of bias continue to exist within SOCOM, which create barriers to accessing a broad range of talent, skills, and perspectives.”
Fenner praised Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s efforts to eradicate a “command climate” of bias against military women. A September Pentagon fact sheet says “sexual assault and sexual harassment remain persistent and corrosive problems.”
Such problems, particularly in the Navy, have infected training for Special Ops men and women. For years, about 25 percent of prospective SEALs completed training, according to the New York Times. That fell to about half in February 2021 and only 7 percent have finished the course since then.
Special Operations leaders released a diversity and inclusion action plan in April, the GAO reported, but it “does not contain specific details or results-oriented elements such as goals, objectives, metrics, and milestones to help ensure progress is made toward improving participation rates of women.”
A Pentagon statement said it supports the GAO’s eight recommendations, including one for “a consistent process regarding the full integration of women into previously closed positions.” The GAO also called for the Pentagon to align inconsistent gender-related policies among the military services and the department as a whole, an issue earning much GAO attention. For example, the Pentagon and the Navy process harassment allegations through the complainant’s agency. In the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps, this is the responsibility of the offender’s service or command.
“As a result,” the GAO said, “there may be confusion as to which service is responsible for processing harassment complaints and they may be processed inconsistently depending on the joint environment and military services involved.”
Watchdog interviews with 51 unnamed women reported gender discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual assault or retaliation while serving in Special Operations, experiences that made them want to leave that assignment or the military entirely. Forty-one were on active duty when questioned.
Gender discrimination and a male-dominated culture were the barriers most often noted in the interviews. One interviewee cited a “mind-set” in Special Operations forces that “women are weaker and that they cannot have a family and be in SOF [Special Operations forces] at the same time.”
“I’m getting out … largely because I never got any recognition for my hard work,” a woman told the GAO. Said another: “It made me not want to be there. It felt like I would never be good enough because of my gender.”
Pregnancy and parenthood also can negatively affect a woman’s career. “I feel like I am less valued in leadership’s eyes because I am family-focused,” a Special Operations forces woman complained to the GAO.
While the GAO warns the experiences of the women interviewed should not be extrapolated to all women in Special Operations, the sample presents a very disturbing picture of life for those in Special Operations forces. Sixty percent of the active duty Special Ops women interviewed said they experienced sexual harassment after the 2016 directive mandating gender integration and almost one-third reported being sexually assaulted. More than a third said they suffered retaliation for reporting sexual discrimination, harassment or assault.
“Women said that the experience of sexual assault made it feel unsafe to continue to go to work and be in the same places as the perpetrators,” according to the GAO audit.
Harrowing experiences for women in traditionally macho workplaces are not limited to Special Ops. Patricia A. Harris, now an American Legion national vice commander, had painful encounters as one of three women among 78 soldiers in her Army Signal Corps unit. They had to hang cables by climbing poles and trees, traversing culverts and even rappelling off cliffs.
Did she face gender bias?
“Oh, absolutely,” she said, her voice rising. “Absolutely.”
Harris was a sergeant, and some men didn’t want to take her instructions. Others paternalistically sought to protect the women. When the Gulf War vet was based in Saudi Arabia, “we caught a lot of hell,” she recalled. Local men would verbally abuse and spit at them because “we weren’t supposed to be there driving and commanding men.”
But the worst encounter was her abduction by a colleague, a male sergeant.
“I started hitting him. Yes, I did,” said Harris, a 62-year-old Raleigh, N.C., resident. “And he hit me back and he hit me hard enough that he knocked me out.” When she came to, her hands and legs were taped to a chair.
Harris wasn’t raped, she recalled, but the kidnapper “did all types of other sexually explicit things.” She later learned “I was only one of eight women that he’s done this to. I was the only one that he didn’t rape.” They were all at the 1980 court-martial that resulted in his imprisonment.
Things are better for women in the military now, but improvement has been slow, “one step forward, two steps back, two steps forward, one step back,” Fenner said.
“There’s incremental change,” she added, but “changing people’s minds and hearts is difficult, especially when you still have the old guys around.”