The Dark Side of Gender Segregation in the Military


Tailhook. Aberdeen. Lackland. All of the service academies. Now the Marine Corps social media photo scandal. Military sex scandals have been happening for decades, and in that time leaders have implemented reforms from all angles. Generals denounce the behavior, congressional representatives hold hearings, and leaders create new reporting requirements and call for consequences. But, as a female veteran of the Marine Corps noted in response to the recent scandal, top down admonishment will only get you so far when cultural change is needed.

As noted in this week’s “Strategic Outpost” column at War on the Rocks, the cultural root of this issue cannot be ignored. A RAND study found that women in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps were 1.7 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than women in the Air Force. The researchers eliminated variations in service member ages, educations, proportions of officers, proportions of men in work settings, months of service, or past-year deployment as explanations for this difference. Culture was one of the few factors left that could possibly explain the variance.

While that study did not have the data to determine the exact sources of the difference in sexual assault rates, one factor that the services would do well to examine is how gender segregation shapes military culture. This is particularly important in the context of basic training, which is ground zero for military cultural indoctrination.

It may seem intuitive that gender segregation would lead to less sexual harassment and sexual assault, but there is mounting evidence that shows the opposite might be true. Studies on workplace sexual harassment show that encouraging social integration at work can reduce sexual harassment. Other studies show that increased contact with an “outgroup” (in this case, women), improves attitudes towards individuals in that outgroup. These improvements are more likely to take place when group membership is de-emphasized during the interaction. The reverse is also true. Emphasis on group membership during cross-group interactions increases anxiety and reduces the benefits of cross-group contact. Outgrouping can lead to de-humanization, which is associated with sexual harassment and rape.

Let’s discuss this in the context of a real-world military example: The Norwegian Army conducted a study on unisex housing, where separate groups of two women were housed with six men. They found that sexual harassment claims dropped. The authors of the study postulated that the integrated rooms had a de-genderizing effect, dampening the “us-versus-them” mentality that can lead to sexual harassment. Indeed, a RAND study on women in the military confirms that “integrated training appears to improve cohesion and improve the physical readiness of women more than gender-specific training alone.”

How is this relevant to the U.S. military? Take U.S. Army basic training as an example. An array of laws and regulations cordon male recruits and training staff from female recruits. These rules are intended to protect recruits and reduce sexual harassment and assault complaints, but may do the opposite by legislating mistrust and antipathy between the genders.

Federal law requires the Army to provide housing for “male and female recruits separately and securely from each other during basic training.” It also prohibits training staff from entering the living areas of recruits of the opposite sex after training hours.

The training regulation that implements these mandates reads like a prison manual: Doors separating male and female living areas are to be equipped with audible alarms and panic door locks. Guards of the same gender are to be posted at the entrance to sleeping areas during sleeping hours.

Housing is not the only venue where gender segregation affects training. The training regulation requires soldiers to have battle buddies at all times, and that the battle buddies be gender-matched. According to the regulation, the purpose of the battle buddy system is to teach teamwork and responsibility, improve safety, and reduce sexual harassment, misconduct, and suicide. The only exception to gender-pairing is if there is only one soldier of a particular gender. In these cases, cadre can assign three person teams. Even ad-hoc teams for occurrences such as sick call, worship, or remedial training are required to be gender-matched.

The Army is a team of teams. Its structure consists of four-man fire teams, two of which form a squad.  Squads make up a platoon, which make up a company, which make up a battalion, which make up a brigade, which make up a division. A buddy team is not on official element, but it is the most intimate building block in this structure. Gender matching buddy teams sets a strong tone that members of the opposite sex are not teammates and are not to be trusted. This tone is reinforced by panic locks, same-gender guards, and restrictions on interactions with cadre of the opposite sex.

This mistrust is further bolstered when leaders tell male soldiers that female soldiers are trouble. A different RAND study found that some men were told “don’t talk to them, don’t sit near them in the mess, don’t breathe near them.” Cadre warn male recruits that spending time with women can mean accusations of fraternization or sexual harassment, and that if a woman makes a sexual harassment claim, the man will be presumed guilty.

This approach doesn’t just disrupt the relationships among trainees. It also impacts instruction. That RAND study also found that “men were reluctant to push women … because of the fear that the women would retaliate with an unfounded charge of sexual harassment,” and that most men were hesitant to correct women without a witness for the same reason.

While these gender segregation practices are well-intended, good intentions have not corrected the patterns of sexual misconduct in the military. There are plenty of indications that the segregated approach to training could be a source of the problem rather than a solution to it. It’s time to consider that gender should not be an exception to the first principle of military training: Train as you fight. Congress should repeal strict gender segregation requirements and instead encourage the military to seek new, evidence-based approaches to gender issues.


Molly Kovite is an officer in the U.S. Army. The views expressed are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of the Army or any of its subdivisions.

Image: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Brian Hamilton