Shining a Light on Female Service Members and Why it Matters

Published: June 10, 2021

Female service members bring talent and diversity to the military. We need women in the military to maintain a strong, capable All-Volunteer Force. But did you know a staggering 48% of female active-duty service member respondents to the 2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey have experienced gender discrimination in their unit? This presents a real problem that needs to be addressed. 

One active-duty Army officer in a dual military family, wishes she reported the problems she was experiencing sooner. “I love my work in the military and my family has been able to experience so many wonderful places with each of our moves,” she said. “The unpredictability of military life, especially as a dual military family, can be challenging, but I think the biggest challenge as a female service member has been coming to terms with gender discrimination and sexual harassment. I  wish I could go back and tell my younger self to stand up and report everything. Open people’s eyes to what was happening and let everyone know that it was not okay.” 

Female service members report gender discrimination when it comes to promotions, advancment opportunities, and military-connected training. The service member we spoke with recalls being told by a battalion commander that she would be happier as a stay-at-home mom because that’s where women belong. Other service members have reported being unable to attend important training programs while pregnant or breastfeeding, putting them behind for career advancement.

Even more detrimental to the well-being of female service members? Sexual harassment concerns that are still present. The unfortunate reality is that 13% of female service member respondents reported experiencing sexual harassment within the past year. For the service member who came forward to share with us, early on in her career, she found herself struggling to navigate a sometimes toxic environment. “I was physically touched and verbally harassed as a young captain by a senior officer. While on deployment in Iraq, I was propositioned by multiple male NCOs and officers. I didn’t know how to handle those situations then and never reported them for what they were, harassment. Since then, [it] has been a journey to understand the subtleties of gender discrimination and its impact.” 

Gender discrimination isn’t the only challenge female service members face. They are also more likely to spend more time on household responsibilities each day then their male peers. Military career or not, “mom” is still bearing a disproportionate amount of responsibility when it comes to child care and household duties. As a dual military family, the Army officer and her husband have struggled to find a balance at times. “I’ve had to become better at telling my husband what help I need in managing the family, and he’s learned to be better at reaching out to schools, doctors, etc. and reminding them to include him on emails and phone calls so we can share the demands of the family.” 

What are we risking if we don’t address these concerns? If women don’t feel like they belong in the service, they won’t join. If women don’t feel like they belong in the uniform, they’ll get out. In fact, 16% of female veteran survey respondents reported sexual harassment or assault, and 10% reported gender discrimination was a reason they left military service. And without strong women in the military, mission readiness as a whole suffers. 

That’s a real problem for the future of our military. We need talented service members, like this service member, to feel they belong in this career, to feel respected and supported. And we need those female service members to feel confident encouraging their daughters to follow in their footsteps. We can and we will get there thanks to female service members coming forward to share their stories, and military and civilian leadership coming together to have these conversations. Here’s to moving the needle in a positive and important way.