Women on the front line


by Andrew Buchan

 Ground Close Combat  (GCC) roles are ‘those roles that are primarily intended and designed with the purpose of requiring individuals on the ground, to close with and kill the enemy’.


The recommendations of the 2014 review led by the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Peter Wall are that:

 Defence should conduct a programme of physiological research to further assess the risks and mitigations to women in GCC roles. This will inform a decision in mid-2016. Options for implementation plans are to be driven forward concurrently to ensure momentum is maintained.”

The failure to recommend that elite women should be entitled to commence immediate GCC training is disappointing, particularly in view of the fact that the review itself acknowledged that:

“There could be a perception that this course of action is seen to be delaying the issue and therefore the Armed Forces do not realise the benefits sooner. A chance remains that there may be insufficient certainty by 2016 and research fails to deliver new definitive data.

The problem insofar as the recommendation for more physiological data is concerned is that the numbers are not large. The report estimated that only 46 women p.a. will qualify for GCC training in all three services. Based on current failure rates, this would result in about 60 women serving in the Infantry and 150 in the RAC after 24 years (the length of a full career). There might be a slight increase in female recruitment, and there may be a wider ‘halo’ effect were the exclusion to be lifted, as the Services would be seen as a more inclusive organisation.

Therefore, any physiological research is unlikely to be representative until at least a pilot study has been launched based upon women actually working in GCC.

The review found that, in general, there are physiological differences between the sexes. Women generally have smaller hearts, about 30% less muscle, slighter skeletal structure and wider pelvic bones, resulting in less explosive power and upper body strength.

However, this data includes:

“..a cohort that is wider than the few women in the physical elite, who would be able to pass the ground close combat tests.”

The review proclaims that experts believe that using the general cohort is valid, in that the trends will be similar; however, there will be a requirement to commission physiological research to gain a data set that is truly representative.

Given that women have not yet had an opportunity to serve in GCC roles, the Ministry of Defence does not have a representative cohort in respect of which hypotheses about physiological gender differences can be tested. Furthermore, the demands of the GCC roles are unique; for instance, the experience of elite endurance athletes are inherently different in that athletes are not required to meet the requirements of high readiness or to optimise their fitness levels to meet the requirement of unforeseeable contingent operations.

One cannot help wondering whether the real reason for the lack of change is because the services are not yet ready to change their culture. The 2010 Review included a report, Women in Ground Close Combat Roles: The Experiences of other Nations and a Review of the Academic Literature, which profiled 18 countries. It found that, of those countries that do employ women in such units, uptake has been slow. Reasons given include the rigorous physical demands of the role, perceived lack of resilience or aggressiveness and enduring negative gender stereotyping from male colleagues.

The Equality Act 2010 Act provides[1] that an employer will not be acting unlawfully if, in relation to ‘risks specifically affecting women’, the employer is required by Health and Safety legislation to operate in a certain way. Whilst this exemption probably allows for the preclusion of women from certain activities due to pregnancy, it is less clear whether this would apply to the exclusion of women from all GCC roles. The time may be ripe for potential female recruits to challenge the continuing ban as unlawfully discriminatory.

You can read the Women in Ground Close Combat Review Paper  here

[1] Equality Act 2010, Schedule 22