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Poll asks troops, veterans thoughts on women in combat, mixed-gender training and more

Dianna Cahn | Stars and Stripes

WASHINGTON -- Female servicemembers and veterans were 10 times more likely than their male counterparts to answer that they faced or witnessed gender discrimination, sexual harassment or sexual assault in the military, according to an online poll of 1,708 Stars and Stripes digital subscribers around the world.

Of those who answered the question, 68.5 percent of women who serve or served in the military said they had experienced discrimination based on gender, compared to 6.4 percent of the men. Poll results showed that 65.8 percent of the women who responded said they had experienced sexual assault or harassment, while only 6.1 percent of the men answered yes.

Those who said they had been harassed or assaulted were most supportive of integrating women into ground combat positions, the survey found.

The anonymous online poll, conducted by Smithsonian magazine in partnership with Stars and Stripes and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, was based on an email invitation to 21,364 subscribers, so the findings are not a random sampling. Among those who answered were 109 active-duty servicemembers and 922 veterans from all branches. An additional 676 civilians, including 203 military spouses, participated in the survey but were not included in questions relating to direct military service. One person did not identify personal gender details. Women — and one fluid-gender respondent — comprised a smaller subsample of the respondents, raising the margin of error in those results from plus or minus 3 percent for the overall poll to nearly 11 percent, according to the report, compiled by a team at George Mason led by political scientist Delton Daigle.

The report states that the exploration of gender-based perceptions raised some important issues about how the military moves forward in its groundbreaking effort to fully integrate women and transgender people into the force.

For example, men were far more likely than women to agree with the statement that mixed gender training reduced standards, with 69 percent of men and 44.2 percent of women agreeing.


“Reforms conducted by the United States Department of Defense to include women and transgender military personnel are historic in nature,” the report states. “Yet these efforts run counter to publicly held conceptions of what the military should be. Understanding how male soldiers feel about these reforms will be important to understanding the trajectory of the reforms themselves.”

Ellen Haring, the CEO of the Service Women’s Action Network, said her organization’s research has demonstrated a clear link between integration of women into combat positions and an end to sexual harassment and assault in the military.

“I don’t know a woman in the military who hasn’t been sexually harassed,” Haring said. “It’s just become so ingrained in our culture that some people don’t recognize it as harassment or just have a higher tolerance.”

SWAN has been conducting interviews with the first female officers to integrate into armor positions, and Haring said they face a kind of Catch-22.

On the one hand, women at the forefront of full integration faced sexual assault or harassment as a form of resistance, she said. On the flip side, the women see integration as the solution.

“People who have been harassed or assaulted see full integration as a way of breaking down these barriers that result in harassment or assault,” she said.

Haring said she wasn’t surprised by the survey’s finding that men were less likely than women to say that they had witnessed sexual assault or harassment with 42 percent of women and 17.1 percent of men who responded saying they had witnessed it.

The survey did not address whether the men were less likely to see it, to recognize it or to say anything. But Haring said she believes that men are “kind of blind to it” unless it impacts them.

Across the board, there was majority support for women in ground combat, with nearly 81 percent of women and just over 69 percent of men who responded saying they supported it. The poll found that support grew with each younger generation. Whereas 62.8 percent of the Greatest Generation was in support, that figure grew to 71.8 percent of baby boomer respondents, 79 percent of Gen X and 81.4 percent of millennials.

The survey also posed this question to those who had been sexually assaulted or harassed. It found that 82.7 percent of those saying they had been assaulted or harassed supported women in ground combat, as opposed to 68 percent of those who had not.

“One of the common arguments against allowing women in the military is that they could be victims of sexual violence,” the report notes. “However very few people pause to ask the victims themselves.”

Millennial respondents were also the tipping point regarding the assertion that mixed gender training reduces standards. While older respondents were in strong agreement with that statement, just 55 percent of Gen X respondents agreed. Among millennials, support for that statement dropped to a minority 44.4 percent.

Active Duty
Women Veterans