Women training as a U.S. Marine Corps Female Engagement Team train in 2016.

Women training as a U.S. Marine Corps Female Engagement Team train in 2016. Cpl. Clarence L. Wimberly/Marines

There is Only One Way to Undo Decades of Ingrained Institutional Sexism in the U.S. Military

The "Marines United" scandal shows once more that a macho culture is an internal enemy.

The U.S. military is the largest employer in the world, but only about 15% of its nearly 1.3 million active-duty workforce are women. In the Marine Corps, it’s only about 7%.

The small numbers are a very big problem.

The latest US military scandal is shocking in its both scale and the level of malice: Hundreds of current and former Marines posted and commented on nude and sexually suggestive photos of female colleagues in a 30,000-member, private Facebook group.

Yet, another scandal targeting women emerged as no surprise, with similar incidents in 2013 and 2014.

A former Marine who is a reporter uncovered the cache of photos accompanied by lewd and predatory comments—many from men who made no attempt to hide their identities or unit affiliations in the “Marines United” group. The media pounced. The US Senate and House armed services committees demanded appearances from Marine Corps leaders. Top brass bowed their heads and, once more, promised to fix things.

“When you say to us ‘It’s got to be different,’ it rings hollow,” said New York Democratic senator Kirsten Gillibrand as she tore into the Marines’ top man, general Robert Neller, on March 14.

But perhaps the most telling exchange came later, when South Dakota Republican Mike Rounds nailed a hard truth: “Reality is we can’t go to war without women any more, can we?”

“No, sir,” Neller replied.

Women now work in all kinds of jobs in the US armed forces, and in 2015, they were finally allowed to participate in all combat roles. The lawmakers questioning Neller expressed concern this latest episode will dissuade women from serving, overshadowing opportunities that include equal pay for equal work.

“The irony of all this is that we’re trying to recruit more women,” Neller testified.

There is strength in diversity

Online harassment, not limited to the Marine Corps, is only one of the problems the US military struggles with to make the armed forces a suitable workplace for women. And while there are a number of critical steps to take toward true integration, the military needs, first and foremost, more women.

The military is slowly moving to draw them into more combat jobs. The Army also wants to increase the number of female recruiters by 1% per year. Neller’s initiative to recruit more women focuses on high-school athletes. His stated goal is modest—increasing female ranks to 10%. Even that is proving difficult. It’s been twice as hard to find women recruits.

Ellen Haring, a retired Army colonel and a senior fellow at the advocacy group Women in International Security, is a proponent of the classic school of the study of diversity called intergroup contact theory, which posits that close proximity between members of different groups leads to increased harmony. “The more you work together, the more you actually get to know each other,” she says.

Haring tells Quartz the US Air Force bears this out, with the highest share of female service members and the fewest sexual assaults. (Although it’s definitely not immune, with one of the biggest sex-assault scandals in recent years taking place on an air base.) Norway, a pioneer in military gender integration, found that co-ed barracks actually helped make gender differences less pronounced.

More women would also make for a stronger military. In the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan, only women can perform certain tasks, says Robert Egnell, an expert on gender in the military and professor at the Swedish Defence University. “You need them to gather intelligence from women in that society, but also for security—to do body searches in vehicle checkpoints, or to do house searches in female parts of compounds.”

Egnell points to organizational theory and business research that shows that diversity leads to better results. A 2014 study by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and George Washington University showed for instance that shifting from an all-female or all-male office to one with an equal number of workers of both genders could increase revenue by 41% (although it would also make employees less happy, since they prefer to work in more homogenous settings).

But the modern military remains macho

Sexual harassment, assault, and misogyny are common in the civilian world, from college campuses to corporate offices. Still, the macho culture of the military makes its environment crucially different.

It has to do with how men are shaped into fighting forces. “You train soldiers, you socialize them into what you consider to be the ideal warrior mindset,” Egnell says. The rituals of male bonding are seen as central to creating “unit cohesion,” a sacred military value. “That can be everything from drinking together to going to strip clubs, pornography, etc.—things that young men do to bond, essentially.”

An “extreme form of masculinity develops when you are allowed to mix it with violence and an all-male environment,” Egnell said. “There’s no lid on it—in contact with civilian society, or with women who can test or temper this culture.”

The men and women who choose military life generally arrive with perspectives that may be destined to clash. The military can attract “men that cleave to traditional values, ‘a woman’s place’ kind of attitude,” Haring says. “Whereas the women who have joined the military are just the opposite—they are the ones who have rejected traditional roles, who have done something very different from what is expected.” It can be an explosive combination, she adds: “Unfortunately for us, women are such a minority that we can’t fight back — our numbers are so low.”

That becomes clear when examining the Marine Corps, where harassment and assault are particularly acute. A 2014 RAND Corporation study found that 4.9% of women in the US military reported having experienced sexual assault in the past year. Among Marines it was 7.9%. Nearly 15% of women overall and more than 19% of Marine women have experienced sexual assault since enlistment. (And men are not safe from sex attacks, often associated with hazing. The latest investigation also includes the publishing of photos of servicemen on gay porn sites.)

“The Marine Corps has the most fixed identity and culture’” Egnell said. “They are the ones who can probably describe themselves the clearest, and who are probably the most reluctant to change.”

“Most Marines only stay in four years, this will continue to recreate itself unless we stamp it out,” said congresswoman Jackie Speier, a Democrat from California who has introduced legislation that aims to ensure that the military code of justice outlaws sharing intimate photos without consent.

Exactly where integration must start

Neller told the senators that the Marines were “looking” at re-evaluating single-gender boot camps—the only training program in the US military in which men and women are segregated.

“Men and women should train together from day one,” Haring said. Segregation contributes to creating a “boys club” within the Marines “that women are never allowed into.”

Beyond the fear of endangering unit cohesion, one lingering argument against equality for women is the question of physical strength. Egnell has asked officers how often failure in combat is related to weakness. The answer is almost never.

“It comes down to poor decision-making at different levels,” Egnell said, “which would suggest that if we were to increase the average intelligence and critical thinking in our soldiers and officers—for example by recruiting women, while at the same time lowering the physical standards—it might still make us a much more effective fighting force.”

A struggle across the globe

The massive size of the US military makes comparing its culture to that of other militaries difficult. Australia, Canada, and the UK are among those that have endured scandals and reports of widespread abuse. (Neller’s contrite video response to Marines United echoed a much-lauded recorded statement from an Australian general that addressed an assault scandal in 2013.) Israel, which has the neutral most-gender neutral military in the world, also has had struggles.

But US perpetrators of extreme sexism are rarely brought to task. In countries like Sweden, Egnell said, there is no separate military legal system—crimes committed by soldiers go to civilian court. In the US, by contrast, victims usually end up having to report assaults through their chain of command, which often results in an incident stuck within the system, or in retaliation.

Sweden, faced with growing fears of Russian aggression, has just introduced gender-neutral conscription. The move mimics Norway, which has the world’s only all-female special operations unit, organized to take on specialized missions. Norway also has demonstrated how requirements can be adapted to promote fairness. Its women may be required to carry lighter-weight loads than their male comrades, but they face similar physical demands in training. And the consequences of combat will place them squarely at the same level of danger.