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Study Reveals Persistent Sexism Toward Women Serving in US Army Special Operations Forces

Women serving in the US Army’s elite Special Operation Forces are facing significant discrimination including sexual harassment and sexism from their male counterparts and are having to wear ill-fitting equipment, according to a new study by the US Army Special Operations Command.

The Women in Army Special Operations study, which was conducted in 2021 and released Monday, found women were still facing discriminatory and sexist barriers to fully integrating into the special operations community.

Among the findings was an “overtly sexist sentiment” among male senior non-commissioned officers and company-grade officers toward their female colleagues, displayed in anonymous comments that leaders acknowledged Monday were misogynistic. Another finding was that “nearly all female soldiers” in ARSOF are equipped with poor-fitting body armor – an issue that has plagued female service members for years – resulting in many of them having to purchase their own.

“It’s not a nice to have, it’s a must,” Lt. Gen. Jonathan Braga, commander of USASOC, said Monday of having women in special operations. “If you just take the protection of United States and the most critical threats we have out there, we need everybody when you talk about defense of our nation, not just in the Army but at a macro scale. … It’s critical to our mission.”

While the study outlines a number of problems, which Braga called “disappointing,” it also laid out the actions USASOC has taken to address the study’s 48 recommendations.

The US Army Special Operations Command has appointed a “Women in ARSOF Initiative” lead, for example, who “focuses on female specific modernization efforts … mentorship and sponsorship, and health & readiness.” Additional funding has been secured for childcare centers for 7th Special Forces Group, whose soldiers the study revealed to have “considerable issues” with the location of facilities.

There are plans to take further action. The study’s findings, for example, will be integrated into the onboarding process for soldiers going to the Army’s Special Warfare Center and School, and leaders are looking to increase mentorship opportunities for women. USASOC is also developing a commandwide “dating etiquette course” to increase sexual harassment and assault awareness – a course that has already been presented to the 75th Ranger Regiment.

During a media roundtable Monday, USASOC Command Sgt. Maj. JoAnne Naumann emphasized that the study is “not about accommodations for women,” but rather about providing “tools that allow women to maximize their performance and continue to serve at all levels.”

“I am proud that we took this initial step to see ourselves and where our organization stood,” Braga said in a news release Monday. “Addressing the issues identified in the study will be important as we work to recruit and retain the top talent Army special operations units need to be successful.”

Less than 10% of special operations forces are women, according to a Government Accountability Office report released this year. More than 100 women had graduated the Army’s grueling Ranger School as of March 2022, and in 2020 the first woman joined the ranks of the elite Green Berets. On Monday, Braga said there are fewer than 10 female Green Berets, and they are “making a fantastic difference and changing people’s minds with how impressive they are.”

But for decades before those milestones, women have served alongside special operations forces. Indeed, Braga recalled women who served in special operations capacities dating as far back to the Revolutionary War, calling women a “critical” component to the formations.

“We have women serving in every capacity, every single one – Special Forces, civil affairs, psychological operations, our special operations aviation element, our Rangers and our enablers,” Braga said Monday. “Every single one has got females, and they’re critical to how we’re being successful across the world today. And I couldn’t be prouder of them.”

Divide in how men and women perceive the challenges

While the study laid out a number of specific challenges, it displayed a clear divide overall in how men and women in ARSOF units perceived some of the challenges women are facing.

The study found that 40% of women say gender bias in the workplace is a problem, and that sexist comments made by male respondents to the survey represented a “common sentiment” and were “not outliers.” Those comments included remarks that women “have no place” on a Special Forces Team.

One senior non-commissioned officer is quoted in the survey saying that women going to special operations units “are looking for a husband, boyfriend or attention.” Another said that he “dread(s) the day a woman arrives on a team and I hope I am retired by the time that happens.”

Naumann said Monday that many of the comments are “ignorant” and are “simply because people are uneducated, and they don’t understand.”

Women participating in the study also agreed that they and other women have to meet the standards to serve in ARSOF units and in positions of authority, and did not want the standards lowered, or for women to be put into positions simply because they’re women. But nearly half of men still believed standards had been made easier for women, according to the study.

Women who participated in the survey described a tireless effort to prove themselves daily while their male counterparts don’t face the same scrutiny.

“I have to work hard to prove my excellence while men have to work hard to prove their mediocrity,” one woman said.

“During deployment, I realized through several candid conversations with various men that the battle to be seen as competent despite my sex would be there for my entire career in ARSOF because of enduring assumptions and opinions of women’s abilities,” another said. “I have proven myself to men I worked with only to be told ‘I’m the exception to the rule,’ my success didn’t seem to contribute to the overall negative view of women many of these men have.”

And despite one in three women saying sexual harassment is a problem, the study found there is “exceptionally low” reporting of harassment among women because they fear reprisal, ostracization, and the end of their careers.

“Women are simply not reporting sexual harassment,” the study said.

Men surveyed, however, said they were “hesitant” or “afraid” to interact with women in their unit out of fear of being accused of harassment, assault or of having an inappropriate relationship. Men also told researchers that they were worried their spouses would take issue with their working closely and deploying with a woman.

Despite the various challenges, the study ultimately found that 57% of women in ARSOF believed the culture to be better than in the conventional Army, and that most women – 72% – would support their daughter’s decision to serve in ARSOF.

“I felt less gender discrimination in ARSOF than conventional,” one officer said. “It’s about performance, not reputation.”

Braga acknowledged Monday that the efforts to address the concerning findings are just beginning, and that it would take time to change the community’s culture.

“It’s not just one briefing, and we talked to the force, we talked to one person – it takes take time,” Braga said. “But I think I think we’re well along the way … but we have to be better, we must be better because our nation depends upon us.”

Source : CNN



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