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In the nearly half century since the advent of the All‑Volunteer Force, women’s share of active component personnel in the Department of the Navy (DON) increased from just 2 percent of total inventory to more than 15 percent. As background research for a major study on DON personnel costs and gender, sponsored by the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Financial Management and Comptroller), CNA surveyed the events, policies, and research that surrounded this increase in female representation. In the course of our investigation, we identified three phases of gender integration that delineate the DON’s evolving approach to women’s roles in its forces and, ultimately, their contributions to its warfighting missions.

Policy research during the three evolutionary phases has been associated with changing assumptions about women’s place in the military, as well as in society at large. Over time, cognitive biases have eroded, leading to increasingly objective approaches to policy questions and analysis. Some of the latest research even turns early assumptions on their heads. The evolution is not yet complete, but a better understanding of these developments can accelerate progress toward a fully integrated Navy and Marine Corps.


The early phase, 1973–1993, began with the introduction
of the All-Volunteer Force. Female representation increased from a very low base, but growth was limited by a complete formal prohibition on women serving in combat roles. The DON raised only a few issues to resolve analytically, due to a lack of appropriate data and a sense that the question of whether and how women should serve was mostly a political and social issue. The main questions raised during this phase reflected an uneasiness with change:

  • Do women have the physical strength to do various military jobs?
  • Will the introduction of women have a negative effect on morale and efficiency?

The transitional phase, 1994–2007, began with the repeal of the combat exclusion laws and the subsequent decision by Secretary of Defense Les Aspin to open surface combatant vessels and combat aviation to women. The accession of greater numbers of women led to a demand for analysis of the costs of integration. Lower female retention was accepted as an immutable fact, and changes were measured against the historical norm of an all-male force. It also happened to be a period of focus on the effectiveness of targeted special and incentive pays, which are not well suited to addressing gender issues, primarily because explicit gender-based pay differentials are illegal. This environment was reflected in typical questions of the transitional phase:

  • What are the readiness and cost implications of pregnancy?
  • How large is the gender retention gap, and what are its costs?
  • How can the DON use targeted compensation as a force management tool, regardless of gender?
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  • Publication Date: 10/9/2019