Head Strong

How Psychology is Revolutionizing War

Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Women in Combat

Expanding the role of women in the U.S. military.

On April 7, 2014 the U.S. Army notified Congress of its intention to open 33,000 positions, previously restricted to male soldiers, to women. This action came after over a year of systematic study  on how to establish fair and equitable standards of military job performance that are gender-neutral.  Lieutenant General Bromberg, in announcing this decision to Congress, emphasized the “deliberate, scientific approach” taken in opening these positions to women.  Military psychologists, including some of my fellow faculty members in West Point’s Behavioral Sciences and Leadership Department, provided advice and guidance to the Army’s senior leadership on this action.  

This represents a transformational change in how the military views the role of women among its ranks. In 1980, shortly after being commissioned as a behavioral sciences officer for the Air Force, I was assigned to the U.S. Air Force Human Resources Laboratory for my initial job as a second lieutenant. My first research assignment was to assist a team of psychologists in studying the role of women in the Air Force. We were tasked by Air Force Headquarters to “assess the impact” of increasing the percentage of women in the Air Force. The very wording of the question implied a negative bias. At any rate, we conducted hundreds of interviews and surveys of Air Force personnel across the world and found no adverse impact of increasing the percentage of women in the service. On over 100 dimensions of job performance and leadership, gender simply didn’t make any difference.

While our objective findings did not reveal gender differences, the culture we encountered, especially among senior Air Force commanders, was toxic toward women. Their attitudes were at best paternalistic and often hostile. We interviewed several commanders of fighter and bomber wings, and as “evidence” that women were unqualified to serve in most Air Force jobs, they told a variation of the same story. In this story, a (male) pilot crashes his airplane on landing.  It catches fire, and when the fire department arrives, a woman firefighter rushes to the burning airplane but lacks the physical strength to remove the pilot who then dies in the inferno.  Beyond the improbable circumstance of hearing essentially the same story from each commander, the plot fails on basic logic alone. Firefighters respond in teams, and even if one member of the team  – male or female – lacked the strength to pull the pilot to safety, others would have jumped in and effected the rescue. You should never let the truth get in the way of a good story, I guess.

This should have tipped us off to the reception waiting for us when we briefed our results to the Air Force general staff at the Pentagon. The research team leader, a lieutenant colonel with a doctorate in experimental psychology, was delivering the briefing (fortunately, as a second lieutenant, I was relegated to the relatively safe and anonymous role of slide flipper) when the two-star general we were briefing yelled for us to stop the briefing. He proceeded to curse at the team leader (calling him, among other things, a “high fallutin’ PhD” – I kid you not) and ordered him to quit telling him that women could perform as well as men. Clearly, the Air Force was not ready for transformational change at that point in its history (they are doing much better today).

Although things have improved a great deal for women in both the military and civilian workplace since 1980 there are still barriers to full and equal opportunity. Many Americans continue to harbor the stereotype that women are too physically weak for combat, or that they are unable to lead men in any circumstances. I have found that this bias is even more pronounced among certain military populations. For example, compared to civilian college students, service academy cadets – particularly males – are especially less approving of women serving in combat or command positions. 

But there is reason for some optimism. By the time service academy cadets are ready to graduate and receive their commissions, their attitudes toward women in the military are far more accepting than when tested during their first year at the academy. And social psychologists generally agree that attitudes often follow legislative and policy changes. By opening all of its jobs to women, the military leadership and rank and file members may come to see women serving competently and fully with men as the norm. You don’t have to look back too far for a related policy change. The repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” occurred very smoothly. Who could imagine, just a few years ago, that there would be officially sanctioned organizations for gay and lesbian military members, or that same-sex marriages would be performed at military chapels.

Psychologists now have a rare opportunity to study the relationship between evolving policy and consequent attitudinal and behavioral change in a large institutional context. As a fundamentally conservative institution, the military often lags behind general society in these matters. But given its rigid hierarchical structure, once the military commits to policy change it can perhaps execute that change faster than other social institutions. It also has the advantage of close public scrutiny. In the end, the military answers to the citizens it serves. Psychology can play a central role in helping the military succeed in the full integration and utilization of women in its ranks, and other social institutions can learn from its experience.

I hope that the Air Force general we briefed over 30 years ago is still alive today to see how valiantly and capably women have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I hope that his views have evolved and that he and others like him have come to recognize the important role women have and will continue to play in the armed services of the United States.

Note:  The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

Michael D. Matthews, Ph.D., is Professor of Engineering Psychology at the United States Military Academy and author of Head Strong: How Psychology is Revolutionizing War.

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