Work-life balance, job discrimination top of mind for military women

Tuesday - 3/6/2012, 8:45am EST

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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While women in uniform say the Pentagon's recent announcement that it would open up some combat positions to female troops will give their work added "legitimacy," they say the job-classification barriers pale in comparison to the challenge of raising a family while serving in a military that has been fighting wars on two fronts.

Women from all five military branches met in Maryland for an annual conference that combined motivational speeches (including one by Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee), with career counseling and sessions on topics such as finding balance and work-life integration. In a nod to the "life" part of the equation, the conference had a lactation room for nursing mothers.

Currently, women make up 17 percent of the armed forces. But Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, director of the Joint Staff, said the military should focus on recruiting "as many as we can get and retain, which is a lot more than the number that we have today."

The military has had to work harder to break down the barriers that discourage women from enlisting, he said. He called it a "generational" task that would take time.

Women in combat action

Military leaders still are discussing exactly how the armed forces would make certain combat roles available to women for the first time, Gortney said.

"There are pros and cons to both sides of the argument, no matter which side of the argument you're on," he said. "Ultimately, we have to have the discussion so we get to the right answer."

The Pentagon has said that it would open a select 14,000 combat positions, which do not include Army infantry or most long-range special operations, to women starting this month. It's just a fraction of the more than 250,000 positions closed to women now.

But the move, no matter how limited, gives female service members "legitimacy," said Navy Cmdr. Nicole Shue, president of the Sea Service Leadership Association, which hosted the conference.

A woman who ends up on the frontlines, regardless of job positions, is considered to be "in support of combat action," whereas a man is simply "in combat action," she said.

"It may be a minor distinction, but internal to the military, it's huge," she said. "Those kinds of things need to change because we're doing everything. We're just not getting the same classification."

The classification is not just a matter of respect, she said. It matters when it comes to career advancement as well.

But Shue said she worried most about other obstacles that might keep women away from the military.

"It's hard to be a working mother, period. But it's extremely hard to be a working military mother, and you don't know how long you may be gone for," she said.

"The military provides childcare, but it's overcrowded and there's a waitlist. You have to have back-up childcare. You have to be worldwide deployable at all times. It is definitely a challenge, and you have to plan very well," she said.

10 years after

The issue takes on particular relevance now, as many female service members who joined the military in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks come upon their 10th anniversary.

Navy Lt. Megan Donnelly is finishing her aviation commitment and will be able to leave the military in a few months, if she chooses.

"The operational tempo since all of us commissioned and completed flight school has been very high," she said. "People are getting a little bit tired and looking to spend some more time at home. A lot of the women are looking to get out and start families"

She said a few of her friends at the conference are opting out. She has not yet made up her mind but is leaning toward staying in the military. Her ship, the USS Abraham, is currently deployed in the Arabian Sea in support of the war in Afghanistan.

"The mission is still rewarding," she said. "But it's the people I'm working with that sell me on staying in, and continuing to lead the sailors."

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