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Women in Naval Combat Duty : Co-ed Crews Outperform Others, Danish Study Finds

November 12, 1987|KAREN DeYOUNG | The Washington Post

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Take about 80 female naval recruits and distribute them, along with 300 male sailors, among seven Danish warships. Send the ships out to sea for periods ranging from several weeks to three months, and what do you get?

The answer, in part, is five pregnancies and one mid-Atlantic marriage, and a lot of fighting over shipboard bathrooms.

But a four-year Danish experiment on assigning women to naval combat duties also demonstrated that, given enough time to overcome problems of close quarters and unequal physical strength, male-female crews outperform single-sex units of either gender.

Conclusions drawn from the experiment, completed last year by the Danish Defense Command, indicated that women recruits were more highly motivated than men and generally were rated "equal or sometimes even higher than . . . their corresponding male colleagues."

More Recruits Authorized

As a result of the study, the Danish Parliament has authorized the recruitment of women for front-line naval assignments on an equal basis with men for all but submarine duty.

A similar experiment now under way in the army and air force, with women assigned to tank companies, field artillery batteries and Hawk missile squadrons, is expected to recommend ending most assignment restrictions in those service branches.

Twelve of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's 16 member nations have women in some capacities within their armed forces. The exceptions are Italy, Luxembourg, Spain and Iceland, which has no troops. The proportion of women varies from less than 1% in West Germany, Turkey and Portugal to nearly 10% in the United States.

All but a few, however, including the United States, specifically exclude women from "operational" or combat assignments--those where they would end up fighting in wartime--as a matter of law or policy.

In theory, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway allow women in all assignments. But only Denmark has moved toward imposing full equality in all armed forces branches.

When the Danish experiments began, the women recruits were considered so unusual that the European media flocked to interview them. They were photographed sitting astride their missiles and stomping through forests with camouflage paint on their faces, and recorded grumbling and swearing like the best of male recruits.

Too Much Attention

Eventually, the attention became so intense that the women themselves asked that there be no future interviews, command officers said. The command agreed, fearing that if the women were excessively watched, the actions of both sexes--and the experiment--would be skewed.

"We don't want to head the equal rights movement," said one officer monitoring the program. "We just want to do a job."

Denmark, however, clearly prides itself on enlightenment and lack of discrimination. At the same time, full incorporation of women into the 30,000-member Danish armed forces posed potentially fewer logistical problems than similar actions in larger and more rigid military institutions.

But even the enlightened Danish male balked when faced with the prospect of working side by side with women in some of the most grueling and potentially dangerous defense jobs.

The air force was fairly amenable to the program, said Susan Schlueter, a military psychologist working on the experiments. But the navy and the army "didn't want women." The men feared that their presence would destroy what many of them value most in the military--the feeling of locker room camaraderie and male solidarity.

'No Place for Women'

"They live in a society in which they see no place for women, a male world in which they want to be left to themselves," Schlueter said.

Maj. J. Storm-Christensen, secretary to the army-air force project group, agreed: "The greatest problem has been the attitude of the male-dominated army. It has always been men and only men."

But the military had little choice. Women were legally barred from combat assignments here until a comprehensive equal rights law was passed in 1978.

The Danish Equal Status Council, a government watchdog agency, immediately began pressing for the law to be applied to the armed forces. The Defense Ministry balked, and was granted an exemption from its provisions until the mid-1980s, provided it began immediate experiments to "enhance" employment opportunities for women in the services.

The armed forces had an additional reason to go along with the experiments. Like much of Western Europe, Denmark has had a declining birth rate that threatens the future recruitment pool for its largely volunteer military.

Although the government has been trying, with financial and other inducements, to persuade Danish couples to have more than one child, military officials acknowledged they would have to wait another two decades for the results to pay off.

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