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US military sexual assault against servicewomen will stop when more women serve

Ellen Haring and Anne CoughlinThe Christian Science Monitor

Last week, the US military services announced their plans to integrate women in combat specialties. Although it may sound counterintuitive, the full integration of women in the armed forces – in all roles, at all levels, and in far greater numbers – will do more to stop sexual assault against them than any other measure.

It will help more, for instance, than creating a new cadre of lawyers (called “special victims counsels”) to assist service members who say they are victims of sexual assault – a program now underway in the Air Force. It will help more than reforming the prosecution of sexual misconduct cases so that victims do not fear reprisal from commanders – an issue the Senate Armed Services Committee has grappled with.

Both of these efforts are worthwhile, but they address the effects of the scourge. They do not get to its cause, which is the hyper-masculine, male-dominant culture of the military. To do that, the military must create a far more welcoming atmosphere for women, who make up only 15 percent of the armed services. It must welcome and value them as equal partners, and it must greatly increase their numbers.

As Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey commented in January, when the Defense Department lifted the ban on women in combat, having “separate classes” of male “warriors” and everyone else creates an environment ripe for sexual assault and harassment. The more that the Pentagon “can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally.”

In May, the Pentagon said that the number of sexual assaults reported by service members increased to 2,949 last year, more than double those reported in 2004 – perhaps reflecting more willingness to report under the Pentagon’s sex-assault prevention and response program, which began in 2005.

Many more incidents go unreported. According to a Pentagon survey, last year about 26,000 service members (6.1 percent of females and 1.2 percent of males) said they experienced unwanted sexual contact – which may range from rape to abusive sexual contact.

And yet, we are stunned by the leadership’s continued misapprehension of how a “culture change” could happen. Too many generals seem to think the solution starts with the rank and file, when it must start at the top – with them.

In a recent Washington Post commentary on the need to reform military culture, Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales concluded that “so long as the culture of the rank and file rejects the presence of women as their professional partners, nothing will change.”

Similarly, it was disturbing last week to see Maj. Gen. Bennet Sacolick, of Special Operations Command, haltingly discuss the integration of women into elite services such as the Navy SEALs and Army Rangers.

Full combat integration is now required across the services by 2016, with exceptions having to be approved by the secretary of Defense. Yet Major General Sacolick was not able to commit to any integration in the elite forces. He wants first to survey the rank and file on “social implications,” and “behavioral and cultural” aspects of integration.

The only reason to hold back women soldiers – whom Sacolick at one point called “young girls” – is a specific finding that they cannot do the job. Resistance from the rank and file has no place in a decision to keep an occupation or unit closed to women.

It is much easier to look for external sources of a problem than to examine ourselves. Today’s military generals helped shape and lead an institution that enables sexually abusive men, that glorifies a culture of male dominance, and that has only allowed women in at the margins and in support roles.

Numbering only 200,000, compared to 1.2 million men, women in the armed services face exclusionary practices by the dominant group. Those practices range from name calling, to misogynistic jokes, to more extreme behaviors such as harassment and assault. Token groups move away from this condition when they reach a “critical mass” – 33 percent of the total population, according to experts.

Prof. Robin J. Ely, at the Harvard Business School, says that when women reach this level, the organization stops seeing them as women and begins to evaluate them on the basis of their capabilities. She finds that critical mass must also be achieved at the top level for its benefits to be realized – a point that the military’s top brass must understand and act on.

Leadership must move swiftly to fully open up the service academies that train officers. While women outnumber men at almost all colleges and universities in the United States – as of 2011, women received 56 percent of all bachelor’s degrees – the number of women with bachelor’s degrees from the four military taxpayer-funded academies is remarkably low – because admission rates are low.

Only the Coast Guard Academy breaks the “critical mass” barrier, with women accounting for 36 percent of its admissions last year. Female admissions for the other academies has changed little from the first integrated classes: 24 percent at the Naval Academy, 23 percent at the Air Force Academy, and 16 percent at the Military Academy at West Point.

West Point officials have been saying that their classes must mirror the Army’s population, which is comprised of roughly 15 percent women. But this is no way to lead the necessary cultural shift. For guidance on how to make an improvement, West Point need only look at the Army ROTC program, where 21 percent of the cadets in 2011 were women. In high schools, about 45 percent of the JROTC program is female.

If the military truly hopes to solve the problem of sexual assault, then the leadership must genuinely and publicly accept women as fully capable and must actively seek to increase the number of qualified women in the services. Women’s full integration in combat and greater recruitment are not problems to be solved, but an opportunity to be celebrated.

Only then will the military culture change to one in which all servicemembers are valued team players.

Army Col. Ellen Haring is on the staff of the Army War College in Carlisle, Penn. Last May, she filed a lawsuit in US District Court in Washington D.C., demanding that the Defense Department allow women in combat. Her lawsuit remains open. Anne Coughlin is the Lewis F. Powell, Jr., Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville, Va. In 2011, she founded the Molly Pitcher Project, whose research led to the filing of Col. Haring’s lawsuit.

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