The changing role of female leaders in the armed forces

Earlier this week, the Royal Navy announced that Lieutenant Commander Sarah West would take command of HMS Portland, a type-32 frigate, in April next year. She will be the first woman in the service’s 500-year history to command a British warship.

The gradual − some would say belated − infiltration by women of the upper ranks of military forces is beginning to accelerate.

Last year, for example, the Pentagon lifted its ban on employing women in submarines, as did the UK’s Ministry of Defence. Ten years ago, the French Foreign Legion was told it had to accept women (although there is no evidence that any woman has worn the kepi since the change of rule).

However, there are still a number of critical no-go areas for career women in the military. In the US, women comprise about 20 per cent of US military forces, but they are barred from joining the elite Navy Seals or from deployment in front-line armed combat.

In the UK, women are excluded from a number of elite forces, including the Royal Marine Commandos, the Household Cavalry and the Royal Armoured Corps.

According to the Ministry of Defence website, the country’s highest-ranking female officers are one naval commodore, two army brigadiers, 20 colonels and 20 Royal Air Force group captains. The most senior woman in the US Army is General Ann E. Dunwoody – the first female general to wear four stars.

Earlier this year, Congress charged a new commission, the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, to report on improving diversity in US forces. According to the published report, the demographic composition of the officer corps “is far from representative of the American population and … officers are much less demographically diverse than the enlisted troops they lead”.

The report found women comprised just 4 per cent of army generals, 3 per cent of Marine Corps generals, 7 per cent of navy admirals and 9 per cent of air force generals.

A significant factor in these figures is the exclusion of women from combat roles – a recognised source of promotion. The report challenges widely held views that fully integrating women into military forces, including those involved in close combat, would undermine mission effectiveness. “The blanket restriction for women limits the ability of commanders in theatre to pick the most capable person for the job,” it states.

Late last year, the UK’s Ministry of Defence also published a report reviewing its policy of excluding women from close-combat roles, but in the absence of “conclusive evidence”, it decided to maintain current restrictions.

Followers of this blog and readers of Lord Davies’ report into FTSE company board diversity will recognise many of the 20 recommendations made by the US commission. It proposes that a “chief diversity officer” for US armed forces be appointed, and calls for regular “accountability reviews” and more transparency in the promotion system.

Earlier this year, the RAF was named one of The Times newspaper’s top 50 employers for women. The air force’s most senior woman, Air Commodore Barbara Cooper, quoted in a science and technology supplement in The Independent, said: “Single-gender groups act in a different way to mixed-gender ones. In the RAF, women’s presence has improved quality of output, which is fantastic for women.”

Some see women’s debarment from the front line as a final hurdle in the fight for equality, while others argue there are still certain circumstances in which all-male teams are necessary. Either way, we wish soon-to-be Commander West the very best with her new appointment.

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The 'Women at the Top' blog is part of a series of online and print publications that focuses on women's achievements in business. With up-to-date news and incisive analysis, the blog will provoke discussion on the role of the world's most prominent businesswomen.

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About our bloggers

Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

Rebecca Knight

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.