infantry

How to Lead Infantrywomen in Combat

One of the author's soldiers, 'Karina,' during a deployment to Afghanistan in 2009.

One of the author’s soldiers, ‘Karina,’ during a deployment to Afghanistan in 2009.

This is a guest post from friend of the blog Soren Sjogren, a Danish Army Officer who has led a mixed-gender infantry unit in combat.

Leading women in combat

Whether women are eligible to serve in combat units in the US is no longer a discussion. The first women have already passed basic infantry training and American junior officers will soon face the challenges of leading mixed units.

As a Danish army officer I have led mixed platoon-size combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here is what I have learned about leading women in combat.

Do not focus on gender

Gender is not important. Ethnicity is not important either. What is important, however, is this simple question: Does this person deliver the results expected as a part of the team? The only standards to measure are the soldiers’ ability to do their job. Do not focus on anything else.

Measure your soldiers by the same standard

Make sure you measure your troops by the same standard. The idea that women have to prove themselves more worthy than the males by making tougher demands on them is just as wrong as the opposite – lessening standards in an attempt to stuff more women into the unit. Remember: It can never be an objective to have a specific number of women in a given unit. The objective is to train and maintain a fighting force able to carry out its tasks.

Protect your unit from attention

Along with arrival of the first women in your unit comes a lot of attention. Imagine the interest of the media in the first mixed unit deployed in combat. All sorts of commentators might have an interest in the women in your unit in order to use them to promote a specific cause. Higher command might have an interest in telling the success story of women in combat.

Say no, politely. Your job as a leader is to protect your unit and focus on the mission. The women in your unit are there for the same reasons as the men: to prove themselves and serve their country. They did not become soldiers to attract the attention of the press, commentators, or higher command because of their gender.

Never accept sexism

Words have the power to move and to transform us. Never use nor allow language that implies negativity related to gender. An innocent joke about women’s lack of ability to do something or implying that it is OK to use gender as an explanation is the first step down the wrong path.

Do not go there yourself, and strike down hard on any approach to sexism.

Allow women to be women

There is no such thing as a stereotypical infantry soldier. Dark, light, big or small – the only thing that matters is that you are able to do the job. You do not need to transform women and make them more ‘manly’ in order to serve.

Allow them to be women as long as they do their job. Just as you allow the rest of your soldiers to be the individuals they are.

A final word

In the Danish army women are still a minority, even more so in combat units. Few women make it into the infantry. The average woman certainly will not.

But neither would the average man. The point is that we are looking for people who can get the job done. Gender regardless.

Focus on the task. Focus on the standards of the field manuals. Focus on your unit’s ability to capture the objective or to hold the ground. That is all there is.

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29 thoughts on “How to Lead Infantrywomen in Combat

  1. Attig Law Firm, PLLC

    When I was in the Artillery back in the early 90s, the US Army was first experimenting with women in the Combat Arms. Your list would have been VERY helpful back then, and I’m sure it’s immensely helpful now. My motto was always: “I don’t care who or what you are. If you can carry the ruck – and shoot the enemy – you’re good in my book.”

    Chris Attig | Attig Law Firm
    “Changing the Way Veterans Experience the VA Claims Process.”

  2. Gender has nothing to do with completing a task, doing a job, supporting a team, in any industry, and especially in a combat zone. This is very succinct, very applicable to daily living, and worth sharing. Thank you.

    • Thanks bloggingpioneer
      However, I am not the one to judge whether my conclusions are useful in the US military. It is a different context. My point is: this is how I made it work (in the Danish army).

  3. Well said! I like the attitude with which you wrote the post and way this thinking should be. No doubt you probably felt the press gave too much time to that blurb about using pictures of ‘ugly women’ to recruit female enlistments. It was just another way to get people in a lather over a contrived sexist situation to take heat off of the more important news of the day that they can’t properly cover or cover without extreme bias showing, I figure. The bottom line for any man or woman serving should always be skill and ability, period.

  4. TominVA

    Excellent comments. The section on maintaining standards will be key to mutual respect and success. Good luck fending off attention though. I never learned how to say “no” to something the highers wanted (maybe a Danish thing?), and if they want media attention on the women in combat units, they’ll get it.

    It would be interesting to hear the experiences of some of those Danish women…I mean soldiers.

    • Thanks for your comment TominVA

      You cannot expect the entire chain of command to foresee what effects a decision has in your unit. A leader’s job is to maintain focus on the main task. By labelling the attention as unwelcome and potentially damaging to unit cohesion and thus putting the ability to fight at risk you might get highers to reconsider.

      I know from the women who currently serve under my command that they are utterly fed up with attention because of their gender.

  5. Justa Pilot

    The interest by chain-of-command and media is spot on. We had the first USAF student female helicopter pilot and the poor girl was micro-manged by the “help” from above. We finally shared her daily progress was “. . . in accordance with the training syllabus.” It is unclear if leadership is prepared to be hands off. The novelty in Army Aviation took years to wear off.

  6. ted danson

    And then when the woman fails to meet the standard and is disciplined accordingly, you can enjoy your sexual harassment complaint and pending court martial or at least horrible evaluation.

  7. Cdr. P.w. PRAWL, USN RET

    In 1954, I enlisted in the U.s. Navy and ended up as a ground (flight training) instructor. I served with a Wave who was continually given “special privileges”, such as housing off base while I lived in an open bay with other petty officers. I still see women getting special privileges. They will not be accepted until that stops!

    • “I still see women getting special privileges. They will not be accepted until that stops!” Agreed.
      There are two parties here though: The women accepting special privileges and the system (often men) who provide them.

  8. Great guest post! I especially enjoyed the bit about “They did not become soldiers to attract the attention of the press, commentators, or higher command because of their gender.” Too true, and a point often forgotten.

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  12. Reblogged this on Pretty Cover, Gritty Plot. and commented:
    I love the point “allow women to be women”
    Being branded as too feminine is a cop out criticism to make, when really they mean they can’t handle the progression of the military and accept that a soldier who wears a dress and lipstick in down time can certainly handle ‘the cold and the rain’ and perhaps any challenge they are determined enough to tackle.
    Its the old sweats with the problem, a young sapper said to me ‘as long as you’re not a liability the lads won’t even notice.’ There is hope for the future!
    Interesting post, some of it is a bit obvious but then I am a woman!

    • Thanks for commenting Hattie and for reblogging the post. Much appreciated.
      I think that what one label as “obvious” others would call controversial. What I can say, though, is that these principles worked and still work for me.

  13. K Sorensen

    Thank you so much for posting this. As a female in the military (one that has been in combat), it is so nice and refreshing to see someone that thinks with a clear head. So many times we have been laughed at and not taken seriously. Thank you!

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