Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Who Are the Women Who Have Broken through the Military's "Brass" Ceiling?

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Who Are the Women Who Have Broken through the Military's "Brass" Ceiling?

Article excerpt


The military is not commonly perceived as a career that women would voluntarily pursue. And yet, women have voluntarily served in all of America's wars and in the military since the beginning of our history. For most of this time they served as temporary or auxiliary workers, or in a separate but unequal corps, such as the Army and Navy nurse corps. It was not until after World War II, with the Army-Navy Nurse Act of 1947 and the Women's Armed Services Integration Act of 1948, that women had a permanent place in the U.S. military. Although there were many restrictions, one of the most enlightened aspects was that due to the military's rank structure, women were paid equally to men of the same rank, which is still unusual for most working women. Today, military women have opportunities that 30 years ago were not possible, such as leading troops in a combat zone, commanding sailors at sea, or flying combat air strikes. The demands of a military career, including long hours, geographic relocation, separation from loved ones, and participating in military conflicts, are not seen as conducive to the social expectations of women, especially if they wish to pursue marriage and family. (1) Yet, some women have been able to maintain a fulfilling personal life and still thrive in a military career.

This article is part of a larger sociological study of the women who have broken through the "brass" ceiling to achieve the rank of General or Flag Officer (GFO). This paper focuses on the demographic trends for women GFOs, including retirees, reservists and active duty women, by year group cohort (in decades), specialty area, branch of service and rank achieved, as well as some biographical comparisons including family background, and marital and child-bearing status. The primary research question of this article asks: "Who are the women who achieved career success in the U.S. military?"

Military executive or military elite is defined in this paper as a person who has risen to the upper ranks of the military, to General or Flag Officer (GFO). The men and women who have achieved this status are a very rare group of individuals. There are only about 900 regular GFOs on active duty in the Department of Defense (DoD), (2) out of an officer corps of about 220,000. (3) The Coast Guard, under the Department of Homeland Security, has about 40 Flag officers. The officers at this level of the military are equivalent to corporate CEOs or company presidents and have responsibility for millions of dollars and thousands of people. Very few of those who have dedicated themselves to a military career make it into these elite ranks, and even fewer of those are women.

Of the 1538 GFOs currently on active duty in both the regular and reserve components, only 121 (8%) are women. Table 1 shows the variation in percentages of women GFOs between the different branches, and the regular and reserve components, with the Marine Corps having the lowest and the Coast Guard having the highest percentage overall, while the Navy reserve has the highest percent of women GFOs of any branch or component. It is not surprising that the reserve forces generally have a higher percentage of women, as the reserves have traditionally been seen as an alternative to remaining on full-time active duty, as discussed below.

Requirements of a career in the military

The military as a career is very demanding. It is a closed labor force, meaning a person starts at the bottom of the hierarchy and works their way up. Officers enter at pay grade O-1 and the first four years are spent becoming experts in their specialty areas. Career advancement depends on a combination of their military/naval skills, organizational skills, leadership skills, understanding of the national security environment, and military experience. (5)

The military is an "up or out" system; if an officer fails to promote within certain time constraints, then that officer must leave the service. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.