Thursday, September 10, 2009

Women In Uniform

In a debate that never really seems to go away, the role of women in the armed forces is once again in the spotlight. While women are already a vital and integral part of the defence force, there are still a handful of restrictions in place preventing women form performing in certain capacities. Most notably, women are precluded from combat infantry, artillery, and special forces
such as the S. A. S. While it is easily argued that in this world of gender equality there should be no obstacle to suitably qualified women performing any role, the reality is a little more complex.

In most respects, the gender argument was resolved long ago, and women are well accepted within the defence force. The remaining restrictions which do apply are based on practical realities such as the ability of individuals to carry the heavy gear, and operate the heavy equipment associated with some military roles. Indeed, despite the general perception that men are stronger than women, there are plenty of men who would be incapable of filling the requirements.

However, on average men are stronger than women, and the impact of expecting women to carry the same weight, operate the same equipment, and fight in hand to hand combat against opponents twice their size could actually place them at a disadvantage. As a result, it is likely that under such circumstances, the death and injury rate among women could turn out to be disproportionately higher than for their male colleagues. Somehow I don’t think that is the intended effect of affirmative action.

While it can be argued that any person who wishes to serve should be entitled to do so regardless of gender, the rights of the individual are not the only consideration. It is also important to consider the wellbeing of those who serve alongside women, and if there is any question of their capability compromising that wellbeing then that must be taken into account. But the heart of the matter is to be found in that word “capability”, and the real question is whether there might be some women who are capable of passing even the most rigorous physical test.

The review which has been ordered by Defence Personnel Minister Greg Combet, and which has triggered this debate, is intended to remove gender discrimination, and replace any such criteria with evidence based scientific analysis of physical requirements for the various job categories in the military. While such measures might well preclude women simply on the basis that it may be impossible for most of them to pass the test, there could well be some who can and do. When that happens, I doubt if there is there any sound reason why they should not be allowed to utililise their skills and abilities to serve their country.

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