Women in Army special operations units believe they are kept off missions because of “benevolent sexism” and rejected from leadership positions because “men get ‘dibs’ on jobs,’” according to a survey U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) released Monday. And while the reported rates of sexual harassment and assault were lower than in the larger Army, harassment remains a “ubiquitous concern” in those units, with “nearly every” woman of junior rank reporting “some degree of sexual harassment” to Army researchers.

Those findings were lowlights of an eight-month study released on Monday that tracks the progress women have made and the challenges they face in special operations units.

Even activities as mundane as morning PT formations, the study found, can be rife with double standards. Across every special operations unit surveyed, women said that wearing “yoga pants” or leggings led to “countless” reprimands from male superiors for “showing off their body” and “revealing too much” — even as the men who chastise them wear “Ranger panties” to PT and even in the office as a “duty uniform.”

The report’s conclusion on PT dress complaints echoed a sentiment found across most of the topics in the report’s 106 pages: “Most women do not have a problem with ranger panties, they simply loathe the double standard.”

The report covered surveys and interviews carried out from February to August 2021. Hard data came from written surveys from about 1,000 women in special operations units and in-person focus groups that interviewed close to 200 women across 13 major special operations units. The resulting report, “Women in Army Special Operations Forces (WiA) Study,” was made public Monday as the Army released an updated version, “Breaking Barriers: Women in Special Operations

In a media roundtable on Monday, Lt. Gen. Jonathan Braga, the commander of the Army Special Operations Command, said the report had uncovered issues that leaders may not have been aware of.

“This is the largest study we’ve ever done to see for ourselves the barriers and challenges that women face,” Braga said. “This journey took us down so many different holes we didn’t realize, everything from healthcare to barracks and standards of living.”

women special operations
Ill-fitting body armor is a common complaint for women in special ops. (Cpl. Emily Knitter/U.S. Army).

Though women continue to report major hurdles in nearly every area of their professional lives in Army special operations, the news is not all bad. 

The study found that 72% of women in the survey said they would support their daughter’s decision to join an Army special operations unit (64% of men said the same), compared to a 2020 survey of families across the wider military in which only 39% of respondents said they would support their daughter serving in a military branch (51% said they would support a son in that survey).

“The majority of women genuinely desire to continue serving in USASOC formations,” the study found.

The report covers every unit in USASOC. Researchers held focus groups with women assigned to six Special Forces groups, the 75th Ranger Regiment and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, along with the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School and several psychological warfare and intelligence units.

Women continue to fill in the ranks of special operations, though slowly. About 2,300 women serve in USASOC, about 7% of the force, the report said.

However, their placement in those ranks is uneven.

In media comments, Braga said just six women are assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment, none as Ranger infantry soldiers.

“We would love to see some of that matriculate through [to the Rangers] now that that barrier has been broken in the regular army and regular infantry. We would love to attract that talent,” Braga said. 

Though roughly 4,000 soldiers serve in the Ranger Regiment, researchers held just one focus group at the Regiment and spoke with just two women (one enlisted, one officer). In contrast, researchers held more than 20 focus groups at Special Forces groups involving over 100 women.

Braga also noted that only a handful of women — “less than 10, more than 1,” he said — have successfully completed Special Forces training to earn a green beret and serve on an operational A-team.

At the core of the report are findings that women in special operations units deal with ill-fitting gear, double standards and constant doubts about their abilities, and gender biases that range from misplaced paternalism to outright hostility.

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The report found that 40% of women in special operations said gender bias in the workplace is a current challenge.

Many said they had been denied assignments or promotions for reasons they traced to gender bias. One woman said she had been one of four women to apply for a leadership job over support troops enabling a Special Forces team when the team’s Green Berets did not want to be in charge of non-operators. However, commanders tapped a soldier from the team for the job, who then failed as a leader, she said, because “he didn’t want to be there.”

“Protective leaders are emplacing invisible barriers,” the report said, as male leaders make decisions with an eye toward “protecting female Soldiers.”

Another woman said she had been denied the ability to contribute to a mission in an austere environment. “With a frustrated tone [she] stated, ‘I had a she-wee, I can wipe my own ass, and I went to SERE school where I slept right next to all the guys.’”

Though the report found most gender bias was unconscious, institutional, or perhaps ill-placed paternalism, deeply held anti-woman sentiment was not hard to find, particularly among senior Special Forces soldiers. Responses from senior male NCOs included:

  • “I dread the day a woman arrives on a Team and I hope I am retired by the time that happens.”
  • “I have decided to retire so I don’t have to lead a Team containing a female.”
  • “Ask all of the support women that ASK to go to SOF units. Do you think they are pursuing career opportunities? Please. Be honest with yourselves. They are looking for a husband, boyfriend or attention. And they get it. Because the men that choose to lay down their lives and do missions that only great men can do are warriors. Warriors do warrior shit. Women like warriors. These are the facts. Play pretend in your circus all you want, this is truth.”
  • From a male civilian: “Women should never command [Special Forces or Rangers]. The day you put a transgender in my chain-of-command is the day I drop my retirement papers. I hope you then reap all of the ramifications of such moral depravity, enabling of psychosis and political cowardice.”

Beyond daily examples of bias, the report cites several other areas where women said special operations units are falling flat: equipment, childcare, social support (such as mentoring), sexual harassment, pregnancy, and soldier morale. 

When originally issued in 2021, the report made 42 recommendations for improving the experience and integration of women into special operations units. The updated report released this week says USASOC has instituted about half and is working on the remainder.

The recommendations include:

  • Review and redesign body armor and helmets, including fielding the Modular Scalable Vest system in sizes appropriate for women and new straps for the Army’s Advanced Combat Helmet.
  • New sizing for the MOLLE rucksack, although many women told the study researchers they have turned to older ALICE packs for their field gear. ALICE packs were largely phased out of the Army soon after 9/11 though they are still in circulation in many units, often used by radio operators and for distance rucking. The ALICE, women told the study, uses a smaller rigid frame that fits smaller torsos more readily than the MOLLE pack. Many younger respondents, the survey noted, were unfamiliar with the ALICE ruck.
  • Improvements in child care, including a SOF-wide emphasis on child care plans and funding for a $1.6 million center at Camp Bull Simons on Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, home of the 7th Special Forces Group.
  • An awareness and focus on health during pregnancy and recovery afterward.
  • A focus on issues around pregnancy, including postpartum care, post-miscarriage support, appropriate return to physical fitness standards, and access to breastfeeding.
  • Establishing and improving mentorship programs.

“We still got a lot of work to do,” Braga said. “A change of culture takes time. It’s not just one briefing, we talk to the force, we talk to one person. But I think we are well along the way on the right azimuth. We must be better.”

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