Marital Status
Pay Grade

Gender. Trends in the percentage of enlisted women since FY 1973 are shown in Figure 3.4 (Appendix Table D-19 provides numerical data).  Thirty years ago, because of legal restrictions, women constituted less than 2 percent of military members.  In 1967, Public Law 90-30 removed the 2-percent cap on women in the military. (3)  However, policies, particularly those related to the roles of women, did not change accordingly.  It took nearly 20 years for the Services to achieve 10 percent representation of women.

Figure 3.4. Women as a percentage of Active Component enlisted members, by Service, FYs 1973–1998.

Four factors affect the proportion of enlisted female members.  First, women have a lower inclination to enlist than men do;(4) only 13 percent of females age 16–21 planned to enlist in 1998 compared to 26 percent of males ages 16–21.(5)   Second, combat exclusion policies restrict the positions and skills in which women may serve.  However, as directed by former Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, the Services have opened more positions for women. Third, the military personnel system is a "closed" system.  Growth must come from within, and from the bottom up; lateral entries play no significant role. Consequently, the gender structure of the career force is shaped primarily by the proportion of females recruited.  Fourth, women leave the Services at a higher rate than men.  Thus, the percentage of women in the military may not change much from current levels unless there are significant increases in female recruiting or retention.

As a result of policy and social changes, the number of active duty enlisted women increased from nearly 28,000 in FY 1972 to a pre-drawdown peak of 196,000 in FY 1989, then down  to 160,000 in FY 1995.  The number and proportion of women has increased to nearly 165,000, more than 14 percent women, in FY 1998.  The increase in women in the military since FY 1972 brought about significant changes across all aspects of personnel management: in training programs and physical fitness regimens, in assignments, in living arrangements, and in medical services.  It also created new administrative issues regarding pregnancy, the proportion of single parents in the military, child care arrangements during peacetime and deployment, and dual-service marriages (where husband and wife both serve in uniform).

Nearly all career fields (92 percent) are now open to women:  91 percent in the Army, 96 percent in the Navy, 93 percent in the Marine Corps, and 99 percent in the Air Force.(6)  Gradual increases in the proportion of women in the military underscore the Services' commitment to recruit and retain women.

As shown in Table 3.4, the Air Force has the highest proportion of women on active duty (18 percent), while the Marine Corps has the lowest (6 percent).  Percentages in the Army and Navy are 15 and 13 percent, respectively.  The differences are primarily a function of the proportion of positions closed to women in each Service.  Overall, the proportion of enlisted women has gradually increased (about half a percentage point each year) over the past six years, from 11.6 to 14.1 percent from FY 1993 to FY 1998 (Appendix Table D-19).

Table 3.4.  FY 1998 Gender of Active Component Enlisted Members, by Service, and
Civilian Labor Force 18–44 Years Old (Percent)




Marine Corps

Air Force


18- to 44-Year-Old Civilians






















Also see Appendix Table B-23 (Age by Service and Gender).
Source:  Civilian data from Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey File, September 1998.

  1. Born, D.H. and Lehnus, J.D., The World of Work and Women at War, paper presented at the International Military Testing Association, Toronto, Canada, October 1995. (go back)
  2. Memorandum from F.M. Rush, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense (Force Management Policy), Subject:  1998 Youth Attitude Tracking Study, January 5, 1999.
  3. (go back)
  4. Ibid.
  5. (go back)
  6. News release from Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), "Secretary of Defense Perry Approves Plans to Open New Jobs for Women in the Military," July 29, 1994.
  7. (go back)

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