Don’t Exclude Women from Combat Units Because of Cohesion

November 26, 2014

Anna Simons thinks the full integration of women into ground combat units, and especially special operations units, is a terrible idea. The reason she offers is simple – men and women really like each other and will distract each other enough to ruin unit cohesion and thereby military effectiveness. Simons is a serious and accomplished scholar – one of few who have taken the time to study the military up close. In this particular case it seems she has not, however, used her anthropological skills to study the integration of combat units with the same zeal. Instead, she is relying on the “everybody knows” argument against women in combat that is often heard from those inside and outside the military who really don’t know. Most often because they have not actually served with women in combat, or even studied integrated units.

There are a number of statements in the text that are questionable, but I would like to focus this response on the issue that Simons is right to raise – the impact on unit cohesion and military effectiveness. There is a growing body of social science research that can help us illuminate this issue.

Changing the perspective

The fear about women ruining unit cohesion and therefore combat readiness has a starting point in an understandable but highly problematic assumption: The existing military structure and culture is almost perfectly adapted to perform with excellence in war. According to this assumption, the military organization looks like it does because of the objective requirements of warfare, or what Samuel Huntington has referred to as the functional imperative of the armed forces. Any changes – especially politically imposed changes like women in combat or the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” – therefore pose a danger to what is perceived as a virtually perfect existing order.

Simons has long studied Special Forces up close and is impressed by their performance and their camaraderie, described as “one for all and all for one.” However, the idea that we have achieved the pinnacle of human understanding of unit cohesion and combat effectiveness and that change can only be for the worse is ahistorical. Just because the existing organization is really good does not mean that it cannot be better. Moreover, by taking a look at the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan – while mostly strategic, some of it also stemmed from poor judgment and behavior at the tactical level, particularly in the early phases of these wars. And while I hate to bring up the issue of sexual assaults, the shocking numbers of the last few years are not an indication of what happens when you mix women and men, but rather an indication of a dysfunctional organizational culture. There should, in other words, be plenty of room for improvement.

The aim of integrating women with the limited aim of minimizing damage to the existing structure and culture of the organization provides an unfortunate and misguided starting point for these processes. Instead, the introduction of women in combat units – or the broader implementation of a gendered perspective in military organizations and operations – should be seen as an opportunity to revise the culture and structure of the armed forces for increased effectiveness in contemporary warfare. The inclusion of women should therefore be done with the aim of maximizing the effectiveness of what the organization is supposed to be good at – using force, or the threat of force, for security, stability and victory.

What do we know about women in combat?

It is first of all important to note that the issue in Simons’ article, and this response, is not whether women are good combat soldiers as individuals (that would take us into the realm of physical and mental standards which I have written about elsewhere). But instead, the effect of women on unit cohesion – which is also essential for military effectiveness. Solid data that can predict the impact on the cohesion and effectiveness of different types of combat units is lacking. However, Simons also fails to engage with the useful data that is already out there. Let me highlight some of this data, where it is most useful, and where we might direct our efforts, in four different fields.

First, the lessons from non-military fields. The business literature is now pretty much in consensus regarding the positive impact of gender integration on unit performance (1, 2, 3). Mix men and women in the workplace and you produce more and make more money. The distraction between the sexes that Simons talks about therefore either does not happen, or it happens but is overcome by other more important factors for success. These findings can obviously be countered by the argument that war is different than civilian life so let us move closer to home.

The second field of research is more of a gap: The impact of integration on the performance of non-combat units in the U.S. military. Interestingly, I must confess that I have not actually seen any such studies. One might argue that this is because the topic is too politically sensitive. However, the fact that men and women have been operating together, often in combat, in Iraq and Afghanistan – although not formally as colleagues in a ground combat unit – without hearing about either a positive or a negative impact on cohesion or effectiveness, should perhaps indicate that it really isn’t much of an issue. However, we are still in the realm of non-combat units (regardless of how much they have actually been in combat) so let us move closer to the heart yet again.

The third field of interest is the previous integration processes of black and homosexual soldiers. Simons is simply wrong to dismiss these experiences as irrelevant. The exact same arguments were made about unit cohesion then. It was not about individual performance, anti-integrationists said, but what the individuals would do to the group. The military nevertheless got over both blackness and gayness in the ranks. Simons’ argument why the issue of women is completely different is that racism and bigotry is based on hatred, while women is a problem of attraction. Since Simons is only concerned about this in ground combat units it would indicate that there must be something uniquely sexual about the men who serve in these units. If Simons is right it either means that military organizations are brilliant at recruiting hypersexual men for combat units, or, more likely, that they are socialized into these roles. None of these options are particularly appealing, but the positive news is that the hypersexuality of soldiers thereby isn’t a given.

Finally, let us move into the realm of existing research on ground combat units. Since the United States does not formally have integrated units, we have to go abroad to the many countries that have already gone through this process. Professor Tony King is my go-to guy on these issues and he has done tremendous work (1, 2, 3) studying and comparing the impact of gender integration in different countries, with a special eye on unit cohesion. He finds that in today’s world of professional armies, it is not gender that determines cohesion, but training and competence. In other words, it is not the social cohesion of units that determines effectiveness, but rather a professional and more task-oriented form of cohesion. As long as women are competent and well-trained, they therefore do not effect unit cohesion negatively.

Unit cohesion – an issue of leadership

Military organizations clearly have a working formula – young, testosterone-filled males bonding through shared hardship, heavy drinking and sexual pursuits. So what happens if we assume that groups cannot be glued together with women the same way (although let us be careful about making essentialist assumptions here)?

I would challenge anyone who argues that professional drill sergeants could not come up with alternative methods to achieve the same objectives. I am at the nascent stages of building my own dataset both regarding integrated combat units abroad and within American ground combat units (among them, Army special operations forces and Marines) that have had women fighting with them (but obviously not formally part of the unit). The most common answer during interviews with commanders, as well as male and female soldiers, is that the sex of the person next to them is completely irrelevant. However, pressing them further on this topic often reveals that there are issues, but that they are perfectly possible to overcome. First, all units are different and a good leader must adapt to the dynamic of the unit. Leading women, or leading integrated units, often provides a slightly different dynamic that requires attention and possible adjustment by the leader. Second, while sex and love are not nearly as prevalent or inevitable as Simons suggests, it certainly happens. However, just as any other problematic dynamic within a unit, this can also be dealt with and isn’t the end of the world (as Jessica Scott discussed in her recent War on the Rocks article). The bottom line: There are different ways to build cohesion, and adding women forces us to rethink our existing approaches and the possibility to build something even stronger and more flexible.

Unit cohesion and flexibility

Unit cohesion is a delicate thing and Simons is absolutely right in pointing out that the nature of war and attrition requires the military to treat individuals not as individuals, but as interchangeable pieces of a complex system. Not only does every combat soldier need to be capable of accomplishing the same essential tasks as every other combat soldier (according to rank, MOS etc.), but every potential replacement has to be able to easily fit into an already-stressed group.

Simons is, however, mistaken when she argues that units cannot handle gender diversity. If this is indeed the case, it is because the unit was not particularly cohesive in the first place. Cohesion based on social similarity can be a fragile and deceptive thing. It often means that groups have not been forced to go through any real challenges in their group development, while looking and acting as a cohesive unit. This sometimes means that they underperform when put under real stress for the first time. A diverse unit has faced more challenges in its development phase and has also been forced to build cohesion around issues other than social similarity and friendship. Again, Tony King’s perspectives on professional cohesion are highly recommended, as well as Elizabeth Keir’s work on the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

In the end, the impact on cohesion and effectiveness in war can only really be tested in war. Here I agree with Simons when she questions the utility of the many tests and experiments conducted within the U.S. military – with the U.S. Marine Corps as the most oft-cited example. Our conclusions are nonetheless the opposite. I say embrace the challenge and “just do it” already rather than stop altogether, based on the dubious argument that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Rather than get stuck in the anachronistic if-discussion, let us instead focus on how! The very nature of this debate shows just how challenging the integration process is likely to be. The special operations forces community can actually lead the way here. Their teams are built on diversity in terms of specific competences and backgrounds, and have the last decades also included many women in particular roles. Let us use women and gender perspectives in combat to improve the armed forces.


Robert Egnell is Visiting Professor and Director of Teaching in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. His research covers the effectiveness and conduct of stability operations – broadly defined. He is the author of Gender, Military Effectiveness, and Organizational Change: The Swedish Model (Palgrave 2014), and (with David Ucko) of Counterinsurgency in Crisis: Britain and the Challenges of Modern Warfare (Columbia UP, 2013). You can follow him on twitter at @robertegnell.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army