By lifting its ban on women in combat, the Pentagon is opening up thousands of frontline jobs, creating a true path for female service members to advance their professional careers. If only we could do the same in the private sector.
Spending time on the frontlines in combat positions is viewed as critical to advancing in the military. A 1994 Pentagon rule prohibited women from armor, artillery, infantry, and other combat roles, yet on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan it is much different. As of last year, more than 800 women had been wounded in the two wars and more than 130 had died, according to the Pentagon.
Women have long chafed under the combat restrictions, and rightly claimed that the military has unjustly held them back. Consider this: women comprise 14 percent of the active duty personnel and roughly 17 percent of the reserve components, according to the Alliance for National Defense, a nonprofit group that advocated for women in the military, but women only make up about seven percent of the general officer corps.
For comparison’s sake, let’s consider how women fare in the civilian workforce. Women make up 46.6 percent of the labor force in the U.S., and comprise 51.4 percent of management, professional, and related positions. Not terrible, but there is a significant dearth of women at the top. Women represent a paltry 16 percent of board seats and measly 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 chiefs.
Sadly there is no one move to deal with gender discrimination in the private sector. There it is more subtle. The move towards gender equality would have to come in the form of cultural change.
American companies still consider the “ideal worker” as someone who puts work above everything else, and is always accessible to his or her employer. Indeed, the company often assesses a worker’s commitment — even competence — by how much time he or she spends toiling at the office.
This expectation makes it difficult for many women, and some men, to move up in an organization. For women, there are biological constraints: pregnancy, childbirth, and often the care and feeding of an infant. Others constraints are cultural: society still expects that women perform more of the work of caring for children, aging family members, and communities.
What if businesses were to relinquish this view of the ideal worker? What if they collectively realized that employees have a life outside of work and that the skills people learn outside of their jobs — from organizing community events to volunteering in schools to mediating arguments among family members — are useful in the workplace?
What if we created policies that gave employees more flexibility and time with their families? Take the issue of parental leave. The U.S. doesn’t provide paid leave for new mothers nationally, but many other countries do: the Czech Republic provides 28 weeks of paid maternity leave and health benefits; Italy gives five months, and Canada offers 17 weeks, according to the International Labor Organization. In many countries, these rights extend to fathers too. In Sweden, for instance, new fathers may take off work for as many as 240 days, courtesy of the government, of which two months are mandatory any time before his child is eight years old.
Research has found that employees — men and women — who have more flexibility with their working hours not only report higher levels of job satisfaction but feel better prepared to be effective in their workplace. Employees who regularly disconnect from work also report decreased stress. Health care expenditures are nearly 50 percent greater for workers who report high levels of stress, according to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
Lifting the ban on women in combat means that in years to come there will be many more women in leadership positions in the military. If American companies wish to create a similarly level playing field, they must let go of their image of the ideal worker and realize that all people, men as well as women, have lives outside their work that are important to them and to society at large.
The U.S. Department of Defense has made a good move. Perhaps the private sector should take a lesson.