Two years after the Defense Department ordered the Marine Corps to open all combat arms career fields to women, less than 100 women have successfully entered those previously male-only jobs.
A total of 92 women are operating in a multitude of combat billets across the Corps, from rifleman to armored reconnaissance to combat engineers.
Yet only 11 enlisted women are serving today in the traditional “03” infantry career fields, Marine Corps officials said. No women have even attempted the Basic Reconnaissance Course or Amphibious Reconnaissance Course, and there are no female snipers, according to data provided by Manpower and Reserve Affairs.
Of the women serving in combat billets, most of them are in less physically demanding roles such as light air defense and artillery, commonly referred to as a non-load bearing job field, according to data obtained by Marine Corps Times.
On the officer side, only one female officer has graduated the grueling Infantry Officer Course and is serving currently as an 0302 infantry platoon commander. A total of 23 female officers are serving in previously restricted combat jobs.
“There is no target number or quota for how many female Marines should be in ground combat fields or units; the focus is on combat effectiveness,” said Maj. Brian T. Block, a Marine spokesperson.
“We are systematically executing the Marine Corps Force Integration Plan.”
Block said the Corps’ approach to gender integration is not just focused on the number of women in combat billets but a force-wide endeavor that includes marketing and recruitment of top female talent and new efforts by the Corps that has male and female recruits training side by side, a first for the Marines.
As the Corps continues to push its gender integration plan it has been resolute on maintaining “standards, while leveraging every opportunity to optimize individual performance, talent, and skills in order to maximize the Corps’ warfighting capabilities,” Block said.
Gender integration is bringing about some growing pains for the Marine Corps. Officially, the Marines want more women in the Corps overall, targeting a goal to make the force 10 percent women by the end of next year.
Yet the number of women who have broken the gender barrier in the Marine Corps’ combat arms remains far fewer than the those in the Army. And many advocates for female service members say the Marines’ numbers paint a disappointing picture of gender integration progress across the Corps.
Still, it’s a historic achievement for the 92 individual women who are now in the Marine Corps combat arms. The groundbreaking cadre of women met unquestionably rigorous standards and personally maneuvered around the cultural barriers they confronted along the way.
Yet questions persist inside and outside the Marine Corps about whether the service is doing enough to ameliorate barriers to the combat arms and making women feel more welcome.
The Marine Corps has made gestures and policy decisions that appear unwelcoming to women. And that was reinforced by last year’s “Marines United” scandal, when a large online community of male Marines was sharing nude photographs of women, including female Marines.
The Marines were the only branch to ask for a waiver when the Pentagon ended the policy that excluded women from combat jobs. In 2015, the Pentagon’s civilian leaders rejected the Corps request that some jobs remain restricted to men.
That sent a signal to women that they were not welcome in the Corps, said Lory Manning, a director at the Service Women’s Action Network and retired Navy captain. It “gives women second thoughts, you don’t want to go where you’re not welcome.”
Few women are even trying to enter the Marine Corps combat arms job field.
Only 51 female recruits entering boot camp during the eight-month period between October 1, 2016, and May 31, 2017, entered with a combat arms job field. Of those, 13 passed the MOS Classification Standard test.
As the initial cadre of women arrived at boot camp, nearly three out of four women were failing new Military Occupation Specialty Classification Standard physical fitness requirements for combat job fields forcing them to be reclassed into other fields, Marine Corps officials said in August 2017.
Yet women who make it through boot camp and pass that initial test are performing well.
After boot camp, Marines take another series of gender-neutral job specific physical fitness tests called the MOS-specific physical standards, or MSPS. These are gender-neutral standards specific to job fields and are taken at the MOS school house.
Nearly 90 percent of women have passed the MSPS standards, Marine Corps officials said.
Nevertheless, more than half the women serving in ground combat billets today are serving in fields with less physical demanding requirements.
On the enlisted side, there are currently six female rifleman (0311), one machine gunner (0331), and three mortarman (0341). Though women have attempted the screening to become a Marine special operator, none have yet passed.
The majority of women have fallen into artillery, combat engineers, and low altitude air defense gunners, where the physical requirements are less stringent.
Though, the Corps has made strides in boosting fitness results of female Marines. The Marines employed certified fitness instructors as part of the Force Fitness Instructor program to help boost knowledge of the science behind physical training.
And efforts by Marine Corps Maj. Misty Posey to help institute a training routine to prepare women to do pull ups in lieu of the traditional flexed arm hang are also bearing fruit as female Marines have seen notable success in the pull-up portion of the PFT, according to the annual report by Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services.
But, by comparison the Army has had fewer problems bringing women into ground combat jobs. Nearly 500 women are serving in various combat billets throughout the Army, officials said.
Moreover, 10 women have graduated from the Army’s grueling Ranger course and one is serving as an officer with a Ranger regiment. Nearly 74 women have graduated from Infantry or Armor Basic Officer Leader’s Course.
One reason for the Army’s success: prior to the opening of combat fields, the Army started pushing women noncommissioned officers and leaders to previously excluded job fields to boost the ranks of female cadre members before new female soldiers entered the infantry schoolhouses. The initiative was known as Leaders First.
The Corps implemented a similar strategy after the Army that saw over 200 female Marine leaders sent to formerly restricted units. An effort the Corps says has been successful.
NEEDED: MORE WOMEN
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller said in late January he wanted to grow the number women in the entire Marine Corps to 10 percent, up from today’s 8 percent female force.
That would likely boost the number of women in the combat arms.
But it’s a lofty goal.
There are only 3,500 slots for women in recruit training, and that limits the Corps’ ability to grow the number of women, Lorri Manning explained.
That limit on the number of beds for women at recruit training at Parris Island, South Carolina, would be mitigated if the Corps fully integrated men and women into the same recruit training programs.
Manning believes that standards can be used to create a perception that women in the Corps are not being put through the same gauntlet as their male counterparts, which ultimately leads to disrespect of female Marines and a treatment of them as second-class Marines.
Manning says the Corps also sends signals that training of male Marines is a higher priority over women that ultimately inhibits a drive to enter physically demanding combat job fields.
The Marines Corps’ culture also has more intangible barriers to female integration, including a tightly-knit social fabric that values comradery and brotherhood amongst male Marines at the expense and sidelining of women, said Nora Bensahel, an expert on defense at American University. Bensahel pointed to the “Marines United” scandal that rocked the Corps last year after revelations about a secretive Facebook highlighted the deep issues within the Corps. It highlighted a Corps as a “culture that devalues women in the ranks.”
“The entire culture of the Marine Corps is a hyper-masculine culture,” said Bensahel.
The Marine United Facebook page distributed thousands of sexual and explicit images of female Marines and some civilians, many without the consent of the victims. Sexually harassing and even violent messages accompanied many of the posts.
Since then, the Corps has updated policies to help police social media misconduct and to aid the Corps in its effort to prosecute those committing offenses.
Those efforts are starting to bear fruit, though maybe not as fast as some like.
A year after Marines United, 119 culprits have been identified, 22 non DoD civilians and 97 Marines.
And prosecutors have taken some of these culprits to town. To date there have been 80 dispositions, seven total courts martial, 14 NJP [ non- judicial punishment], 6 administrative separations, and 28 adverse administrative actions, according to the Judge Advocate Division, HQMC.
GROWING THE RANKS OF WOMEN
To achieve the commandant’s goal of a Marine Corps with 10 percent women by the end of next year, Marine Corps Recruiting Command is ramping up a plan to entice more qualified female Marines.
However, there are a myriad of problems attaining those numbers.
“More than 90 percent of America’s youth are disinterested in military service and less than 8 percent of females are interested in military service,” said Jim Edwards, a spokesman with Marine Recruiting Command.
To hit the 10 percent mark, the Corps needs to ship 3,400 women to recruit training annually. “During FY17, Marine recruiters shipped 3,355 women to entry-level training, which was 8.9% of all new recruits,” Edwards said.
The Corps argues that fallout from Marines United has not impacted any recruitment efforts, and data provided by the recruiting command backs that claim.
On the enlisted side of the house, the Corps managed to recruit 3,355 women in FY17, slightly up from 3,201 from the previous year. The Corps has had steady but tepid growth in the number of female enlisted Marines each year since FY 2013.
The swings in the officer pool have been much smaller. FY17 saw 166 females officer recruits, slightly up from 149 in FY 2013. On average, female officer recruits are hitting just over 9 percent out of all recruits on average.
But the Marines are still short of their mark. That’s why Recruiting Command has embarked on an aggressive marketing blitz targeting women.
“We have increased the amount of female-inclusive and female-specific marketing and advertising initiatives to generate awareness about what it means to be a Marine and to highlight opportunities for women in the Marine Corps,” Edwards said.
Some of those initiatives include reflecting on the inclusiveness of Marine occupational specialties, and portraying female Marines more accurately. And updating websites to remove gender-qualifying language.
In 2014 the Corps began sending direct mail to female high school juniors and seniors, something they used to only do for males. Now more than 30 percent of that mail targets female high school students.
And in 2017, the Corps released its “Battle Up” commercial, inspired by the “Battles Won” campaign. It was the first Marine Corps commercial with a female lead.
“These commercials feature women in a more authentic and representative manner alongside their male counterparts and clearly communicates who we are as Marines, what we do in support of our Nation’s interests, and why it should be important and aspirational to our country’s citizens.” Edwards said in an emailed response to Marine Corps Times.
The Corps is also targeting athletic women in sports programs in high school and college to best recruit women that can meet the rigorous physical requirements across all job fields. That includes evolving partnerships with USA Rugby and the National Wrestling Coaches Association.
“Notably, about 10 percent of all youth wrestlers are female and that number continues to increase,” Edwards said.
“These are resilient individuals who know how to fight and win.”
“We remain steadfast in our commitment to ensure that the men and women who earn the title “Marine” will be ready, and will provide America with an elite crisis-response force that is ready to fight and win,” Block said.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.