Combat roles for women planned in British army

True courage: Corporal Channing Day was killed while on duty in Afghanistan in 2012 © PA

Female soldiers may soon be able to serve in frontline combat for the first time, says the UK Defence Secretary. But already there is opposition, from both men and women. Why?

Almost 2,000 years ago, Boudicca, queen of the Iceni people, led a major uprising against Roman forces and destroyed the capital of Roman Britain in the process.

For some of today’s female soldiers, Boudicca is proof that women should be allowed to fight alongside men in the British army — currently regulations do not permit it.

But that could be about to change. The Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has signalled that he is in favour of allowing women to fight, and a review of the subject planned for 2018 will now be brought forward.

Many women already serve on the frontline as medics, engineers, pilots, intelligence and bomb disposal officers, but they are banned from roles where the primary aim is to attack and potentially kill the enemy — known as combat roles.

Now, Hammond wants to ensure equal opportunities for men and women. Sexual harassment is shockingly common in both the US and UK armies, and the army is often regarded as ‘the last bastion of male chauvinism.’

In order to maintain the high standards of the army, he has indicated that women who wish to fight will have to prove they are just as fit as male soldiers, and pass the same, notoriously tough tests.

Some are concerned that most women are simply not strong enough, and could become a burden. Katy Petronio, a US engineering officer, is a vocal opponent of women serving in combat roles. She developed serious, permanent back pain from regularly carrying 80-pound packs on 15-mile road marches in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Women in the armed forces have made significant progress in recent years, however. This month, three women became the first ever to serve as submariners in the Royal Navy. And in many countries, such as Norway, America, Canada and Israel, women already serve in combat roles, with great success. Giving women equal roles in the army could afford them greater respect from their male colleagues.

Battle of the sexes

Women simply do not have the same physical capabilities as men, some say. We would not allow them to play in all-male rugby teams — why should the army be any different? Moreover, the few that are capable of passing the rigorous fitness tests might be targeted by the enemy as ‘trophies’, weakening military effectiveness overall.

But if a woman can prove that she is just as physically capable as a man, she should be given the opportunity to fight, argue others. They already do elsewhere in the world — why not the UK? Besides, promotion to the highest levels of the army can be barred to those who have not undertaken combat duty. If women were given the chance to reach the very top, it would be clear that only ability not gender mattered in the armed forces.

You Decide

  1. Should women be allowed to serve in combat roles?
  2. Is it sexist to suggest that women shouldn’t fight alongside men?


  1. In pairs, take it in turns to make one-minute speeches, with one of you arguing for women in combat roles, the other against. Make sure you don’t repeat your arguments.
  2. Using expert links, find out which countries in the world do allow women to fight in combat roles. Research how their participation differs from country to country.

Some People Say...

“Some jobs are better suited for women, others for men.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How does this affect me?
Joining the army may, or may not, be the job for you, whatever your sex. But the issue of gender equality in the workplace affects us all, and this particular debate is an important part of a much wider issue. We should not allow outdated and lazy assumptions about women’s capacities to cloud the debate.
Why would anyone want to fight in the army?
For both men and women, it is a chance to serve their country, and they relish the mental and physical challenge. Many women have fulfilling and satisfying army careers, and some combine military life with motherhood. And their bravery should not be underestimated: three women have been killed in Afghanistan while serving on the frontline.

Word Watch

In 60AD the Romans annexed the kingdom of the Iceni people in East Anglia after the death of Boudicca’s husband. They are said to have flogged Boudicca and raped her daughters. The Iceni rebelled and Boudicca led her warriors to successfully defeat the Roman Ninth Legion, destroying Colchester, the capital of Roman Britain, London and Verulamium (modern St Albans).
Combat roles
These roles are defined by a 2010 British Ministry of Defence study as those that include ‘engaging an enemy on the ground while being exposed to hostile fire and a high probability of physical contact with the hostile forces.’
Sexual harassment
Corporal Anne-Marie Ellement killed herself in 2011 after the army failed to take seriously her complaint that she had been raped and bullied by male soldiers. In the US, a servicewoman is more likely to be raped by a colleague than killed by enemy action.
Excessive or blind patriotism. Male chauvinism is the prejudice that men are always superior to women.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.