June 18, 2013— -- Women may soon join the ranks of the storied Navy SEALs.
When former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted a ban last year on women serving in frontline infantry, armor and special operations units, the move was widely cheered as a step in the right direction.
But opening what has always been a male-dominated institution to women will not be easy. There are still a few roadblocks, like fears among some service members that the move will disrupt military culture and concerns that the service could see a rise in the incidence of sexual assaults.
Right now, just 14 percent of the United States' 1.4 million active-duty military members are women, and few of them hold top-level positions. They are not allowed to serve in Air Force tactical command and control jobs, for instance, or join the prestigious Army Rangers.
Those restrictions severely limit the military career options of women and may discourage girls, who could add to the diversity and skill set of the armed forces, from signing on for service. Military leaders have until 2016 to fix that. They can apply for waivers, but those will require approval from the secretary of defense.
Here are five ways allowing women in combat will change the military:
1. Rape Will Be Handled Differently - The military has come under sharp criticism following recent reports of sharp rises in sexual assaults and accusations of sexual battery against high-level officials - like the officer in charge of the Air Force's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. If more women rise through the ranks and establish a culture that punishes perpetrators more often and uniformly, rape instances might decline. But that won't happen until women and men in the military are afforded equal levels of respect.
As Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey said earlier this year, the ban on women in combat may have encouraged the creation of separate classes in the ranks: male warriors and everybody else. Eliminating that second-class status and allowing women to serve on equal footing might increase their professional prestige among male colleagues. It might also encourage women who have been subjected to sexual abuse to come forward, knowing that they will be treated with respect and not made to feel responsible for what happened to them.
2. The Fleet Will Get Fixed Up - Right now, some attack submarines, minesweepers and other cramped warships don't have places for women to sleep. They don't all have separate bathrooms. The small ships will need to be updated before women can serve on them, the military has said. The military is evaluating the costs of changing those ships. On land, contractors might also start making gender-specific combat gear to help compensate for gender differences in size and proportions (and to double their profits).
3. "GI Jane" Will Be a Reality - Women may soon be welcomed to train to become Navy SEALs and Army Rangers. Whether they'll actually join remains a big question mark. The military is working on developing gender-neutral standards that align with the tasks people will actually need to do for certain jobs, but once those standards are in place, men and women will have to meet them equally. In other words, if a requirement for a job is to load a tank round, the weight of the rounds will be the same for both men and women. Military leaders said on Tuesday they don't have any set quota for how many women they want to fill certain positions, adding that they would continue to look at ways to help women advance. They plan to open the new combat positions to women who already hold other senior jobs, for example, so they can help ease the transition for less-experienced women.
4. Changing Care - More women in combat positions inevitably means more wounded female veterans down the line. That could impact everything from the services offered by the Veterans Affairs Department to the services available to disabled veterans looking to own their own businesses.
5. More Women at the Top - It's worth noting that admitting women to previously forbidden career tracks will result in more women at the top of the military's rank structure. A Chairwoman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would have significant influence over how women in the military are treated and progress through the ranks. That would also have a cascading effect on U.S. politics and culture, since military leadership is a highly sought-after trait in corporate executives and politicians. It could also change the world of Beltway defense contracting: There would suddenly be female veterans qualified to work in critical contracting roles that rely on people with high-level military experience.