In the “most masculine community on earth,” not only do servicewomen contend with undue interest from their male counterparts, they also encounter hostility from jealous spouses and “benevolent sexism” that can keep them off of deployments and training ops due to perceived fragility. Female soldiers, still an extreme minority in the special operations community, report that they’re called out and excluded due to their status as parents; their perception as too stern or too friendly; and even their decision to wear yoga pants, a ubiquitous activewear staple for millions of women. Those are some of the key findings from an internal study by U.S. Army Special Operations Command on barriers to service for women in the ranks.
Completed in 2021 and released this month to Military Times through a public records request, the 106-page study illustrates the obstacles that persist as female soldiers seek equal standing in USASOC, from obtaining gear that fits properly to being recognized as full members of the teams they serve with.
The study also represents a thorough and clear-eyed effort — a first of its scope within U.S. Special Operations Command — to grapple with and understand the hidden factors that keep women from being accepted by their peers in that community. Acting “without external provocation,” outgoing USASOC Commander Maj. Gen. Francis Beaudette directed the study be undertaken, with oversight from an organizational psychologist, in early 2021. Over the course of the year, 5,000 USASOC members, including 1,000 women, took a 41-question survey identifying barriers to service. This was followed by 48 women-only focus group sessions held at 14 bases, and 25 command-team interviews throughout USASOC at the group, battalion and company level. Of the 42 recommendations the study generated, all of which USASOC says it’s acting on in some form, 18 emphasized increased education and awareness.
Other obstacles to service addressed by the study included access to female-specific health care; pregnancy and miscarriage support; access to child care; and safety concerns in lodging due to poor lighting and lax security.
Of note, nearly all of the women who participated in the research held support rules within USASOC; at the time of the report’s completion, there were only three female “18-series,” or Green Beret, soldiers within the entire command. (Today, USASOC spokesman Lt. Col. Mike Burns said, there are more than three but fewer than 10 female Green Berets.) This, study leaders indicate, was a driving factor for the project.
“Although disappointed by some of the findings and comments in the study, we are committed to addressing these issues with candor and transparency. I’m encouraged by the report stating that 72% of women would support their daughters serving in an ARSOF formation,” Lt. Gen. Jonathan Braga, USASOC’s current commander, said in a letter introducing the study. “I’m confident the incredible men and women in this formation are making USASOC a better place to work every day for our sons and daughters alike.”
While sexual assault and harassment are addressed in the study — 30% of female soldiers surveyed reported sexual harassment as a challenge, and focus group participants agreed the figure should really be closer to 95% — women said they were also harmed or limited by male colleagues and leaders who acted out of a desire to protect them. In one case, a junior noncommissioned officer said she was taken off a deployment roster and replaced with a man because “I wasn’t tactically proficient enough for the mission;” however, she added, the pre-mission training had not even begun yet and her leaders didn’t have the necessary information to make that call.
Another junior NCO reported that on her last deployment, all the men in her unit had jointly decided it was “too risky” to allow women to leave the wire, dramatically limiting their ability to contribute to the mission. Another woman who described a similar scenario vented her exasperation to investigators: “I had a she-wee, I can wipe my own ass, and I went to SERE school where I slept right next to all the guys.”
The Shewee is a brand-name funnel-like device that allows women to urinate discreetly in a field environment.
The common practice of having separate living quarters for women in training and deployed environments, which offers privacy and staves off “spousal distrust” concerns back home, also has a major downside, respondents said: multiple women reported being left behind on missions because of planning changes in after-hours sessions that took place without them.
Among female officers in particular, the study found, jealousy from spouses and significant others was a major barrier to equality and camaraderie within units. Women in focus groups described being excluded from casual and social events for this reason. One officer said she was only referred to by her last name to hide the fact that she was a woman.
“I went to a hail and farewell,” a company-grade officer told researchers. “Two spouses approached me and told me not to talk or text [their] husband[s] outside of duty hours.”
Because of these isolating factors, loneliness also emerged as a concern. While an encouraging 69% of women said they had mentors and felt comfortable asking men and women alike for career guidance, female soldiers said they struggled to develop real friendships in their units. While some respondents reported unprofessional attention from male colleagues that forced them to hide their social media profiles or avoid social interactions, comfortable camaraderie often appeared to be missing. Of note, the study pointed out that all these sensitivities and barriers to cohesion were lessened in units where women have been present and fully integrated for years.
“The decision to separately house female soldiers was often described as a leaders’ attempt to maintain good order and discipline by avoiding perceptions of unprofessional relationships or infidelity; however, most women view it as career preservation for those leaders,” the study found.
Ranger panties and yoga pants
Even PT gear could be a source of angst and exclusion. During workouts and other occasions where casual civilian attire was allowed, women in USASOC reportedly would get “called out” for wearing yoga pants or leggings as too form-fitting or revealing. This particularly rankled because the men habitually wore “Ranger panties,” or tight, scanty shorts, with impunity.
“Most women do not have a problem with ranger panties, they simply loathe the double standard,” the study found.
To address problems related to gender bias, both implicit and overt, the report called for the creation of an internal newsletter addressing issues faced by women in Army special operations, which launched in 2022 with an overview of the study featured in its first issue. It also recommended integrating study findings and the work of the newly launched Women in ARSOF Initiative into the pre-command course and onboarding processes within Army special operations’ premier training center, the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Liberty, North Carolina. This recommendation remains in progress, according to the study.
Lt. Col. Rachel Cepis, director of the initiative, told Military Times that she and study leader Dr. Monica Moore have been briefing onboarding classes at the training center and speaking to civil affairs classes at brown-bag lunches over the last year to help build awareness at the outset of cultural challenges facing women and the need to communicate and listen well. While it’s still too early to gauge the impact of these briefs, Moore and Cepis said they’re planning a three-year review to assess cultural progress.
“What better way to say what is ARSOF culture than by showing what the culture is in the schoolhouse, and saying this is how we treat our teammates,” Cepis said, “So they understand, this is a culture I’m walking into [rather than] trying to change a culture later on, which is a little bit more difficult.”
The survey did uncover a proportion of Special Forces soldiers openly opposed to women in their ranks. The 871 single-spaced pages of write-in comments returned with the survey included declarations from multiple male soldiers in senior enlisted ranks that they’d rather retire before welcoming women into Army Special Forces. Others questioned the motives of women who wanted to go to SOF units.
“The men that choose to lay down their lives and do missions that only great men can do are warriors … women like warriors,” one male soldier wrote. “These are the facts.”
No bad days
The everyday challenges cited by many women in the study, however, pointed instead to a broader uncertainty among male soldiers about how to treat their female counterparts, and a hesitancy to have the candid conversations required to achieve greater understanding.
As a visible minority, women in USASOC said they felt they “cannot have a bad day” because they were constantly being observed and having to prove their competency and value. While male soldiers are believed to be capable until they prove otherwise, the opposite is true for women, focus groups reported. Even demeanor provokes scrutiny: one NCO said if she smiled, she was perceived as too friendly, but her neutral demeanor was called “resting b—- face.”
“Men can be neutral, but I can’t,” she said.
Surveyed women stressed, though, that they didn’t want any special placement or opportunities just because they were female, and that worries over whether they were selected to a position just for their gender or that standards were lowered for them in some way contributed to feelings of insecurity and lack of belonging.
One solution the study identified in several places was simple: to listen more to women, include them in decisions that involve them, and “have the hard conversations,” whether with spouses about living arrangements, or between soldiers about exclusionary behaviors and unmet needs from lodging safety to proper gear. These conversations will become increasingly critical, the study added, as the population of women grows and deployments that include women in Special Forces specialties become commonplace.
“A couple of years from now, what I want to see is that just it’s become just second nature,” Cepis said. “I’ve been in ARSOF for a long time. And I’ve always felt like I’ve been part of the team, but I understand that that’s not everybody’s experience. What I want and what I hope is that that becomes everybody’s experience.”