Despite multiple calls to review the combat exclusion for women, impending lawsuits, and growing evidence of women’s contribution to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon’s 24 January announcement to lift its ban on women in front-line combat roles was surprising. For years, Congress and the Department of Defense had justified the exclusion as essential to national security. The Center for Military Readiness, a conservative non-profit think tank that focuses on personnel policies of the US military, had argued that women’s inclusion in combat would dilute entrance standards, provoke greater rates of sexual tension and harassment, and unnecessarily place troops at risk. Just last year, then–Pentagon press secretary George Little announced that although 14,000 new combat related jobs would be opened to women, infantry and direct combat roles would remain off limits.

The origins of the exclusion date back to 1948 when Congress passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, which established a regular corps of women in all of the services. The Act also limited women to 2 per cent of the total servicers and restricted women from combat duties. The exclusion policy was “given implicit legal sanction” in 1981 when the Supreme Court ruled in Rostker v. Goldberg that the all-male draft did not constitute gender-based discrimination. During the next two decades, thanks to the transition to an all-volunteer force in 1973 and the military’s search for increased “manpower”, the number of women in the armed forces drastically increased.

These trends, combined with attention to labour equality rights at the time, resulted in reviews and changes to restrictions on women’s roles in the forces. The most notable change came in 1994 as a result of then–Secretary of Defense Les Aspin’s memorandum “Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule”. This memorandum rescinded the “risk rule” that barred women from many positions based on their perceived level of danger. Following the removal of the risk rule, women were declared to be eligible for “all positions for which they are qualified, except ... units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground.” This exception constituted the foundation of the combat exclusion that existed within the US until January 2013.

So, how to account for what the New York Times hailed as a “groundbreaking decision”?

The impetus might have been the impending lawsuits waged by several groups of servicewomen calling the exclusion discriminatory and against their civil rights. These included a highly publicised suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in November 2012. It is possible that the Pentagon wanted to pre-empt any legal decisions and be in control of the policy change and implementation process.

The increased evidence of women’s contributions in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan may have also contributed to the policy shift. By January 2013, more than 280,000 women had served in Iraq and Afghanistan: hundreds of those have received Combat Action Badges and nearly 150 female officers have died. It had become increasingly difficult to justify a combat exclusion as the military formally recognised women’s valour in combat and extended combat pay to women serving on so-called front lines.

Another motivation for the change may be personal: Leon Panetta, a long-time advocate of women in the forces. In February 2012 — precisely two months before the policy volte face — the then–defence secretary declared: “We will continue to open as many position as possible to women so that anyone qualified to serve can have the opportunity to do so.” Panetta, who stepped down in February, had made it clear that he wanted women in combat to be part of his legacy.

Still another explanation for the change is that something was needed to show solidarity with women, while at the same time distracting attention away from the increased negative attention and startling statistics regarding sexual violence within the US forces.

Whatever the reasons, the announcement that women would be allowed to serve in combat was a landmark decision with potentially wide-reaching implications. Unfortunately, it is far too early to celebrate the change as a gender victory.

Late last year, I published the essay “Let Women Fight: ending the US Military’s Female Combat Ban” in Foreign Affairs, in which I called for the removal of the combat exclusion. I argued that the policy was discriminatory, outdated, and out of touch with the reality of modern warfare.

My arguments, however heartfelt, were made with some trepidation. After all, it was one thing for the Pentagon to remove any gender-based barriers to service, which in and of itself is a positive step for the military. But when it comes to the significance and potential impacts of the change, the devil is in the detail.

Indeed, there are four potential obstacles to the goal of genuinely improving diversity and gender equality in the forces: the implementation process, outdated physical standards, rampant sexual violence, and sustained sexism within the forces.

Start with the implementation process for the combat exclusion. While it has been made clear that the services have until May to create a plan for implementation, the Pentagon is allowing three years for final decisions and pathways forward from the services.

The time frame is not the main issue here. In fact, a three-year implementation process is shorter than the five-year process the Australian Defence Forces set up upon its 2012 announcement that it would remove the combat exclusion. As General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has declared, “To implement these initiatives successfully and without sacrificing our war-fighting capability or the trust of the American people, we will need time to get it right.” Rather than timing, the issue with the implementation process is the lack of clarity as to how much power each of the services will have to keep some doors shut to women.

It has been reported that services are able to ask for exceptions to the policy and request that particular roles remain restricted to women. This could mean that the services fall back on old arguments about physical standards or the importance of all-male bonding to group cohesion for particular units, sustaining gender divisions and keeping women from fully integrating into the forces. While it remains to be seen, giving significant power to the services to create exceptions to the reversal of the combat ban could create a substantial loophole that maintains restrictions for women.

Second, decisions regarding physical standards and tests for men and women will greatly affect women’s integration into additional roles. For years, concerns that women “just can’t make the cut” when it comes to physical fitness were used to justify their exclusion from key roles, including infantry. Today, it has been widely acknowledged that physical standards for various services were created decades ago, to measure men’s bodies, and with World War II–style military operations in mind. Women and their advocates are not asking for “lowered” standards, as some critics would argue. Rather, there has been a call for a general review of the standards to ensure that they measure job effectiveness and do not favour men by design.

While it is clear that there are indeed physical differences between men and women, experts within the US have long recognised that current physical standards are outdated and do not necessarily measure job capabilities. Back in 1998, the US General Accounting Office admitted that physical standards tests were not necessarily an effective indicator of operational effectiveness: “The physical fitness program is actually intended only to maintain the general fitness and health of military members and fitness testing is not aimed at assessing the capability to perform specific missions or military jobs.”

Furthermore, in an interview with National Public Radio in February 2013 General Dempsey acknowledged that current standards for military roles need substantial review: “There are existing standards, many of which haven’t dusted off in a very long time, [and] many of which have been narrowly focused just on physical standards, but without the companion piece of potentially psychological and intellectual standards.”

Despite this general acknowledgement of the need for a review of physical standards, there seems to be internal disagreement within the services as to how such a review will take place as part of the implementation strategy for the combat ban reversal. More specifically, while Lieutenant General Robert Milstead, deputy commander for manpower and reserve affairs, announced an extensive plan to review and verify the physical requirements associated with roles previously closed to women, it appears that not all the services are keen to initiate changes.

Only weeks following the 24 January announcement, the Marine Corps declared that it would not be adjusting its physical standards in light of the exclusion policy change. Marine Colonel Jon Aytes expressed confidence over the existing physical requirement, noting “We’ve been in the Marine business for a long time.” Without a comprehensive update of current physical standards, women may remain de facto excluded from many roles as they struggle to meet physical requirements designed for male bodies rather than job demands.

Third, the military is still scrambling to deal with its sexual violence epidemic. Statistics about sexual violence in the forces are staggering. Between 1 October 2010 and 31 September 2011, the military’s own Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office estimated that there were 52 reported sexual assaults a day. The department acknowledges that reported incidents likely make up only 14 per cent of total cases. The Department of Veterans Affairs found that half of the women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan were sexually harassed and almost one in four were sexually assaulted.

In March 2013, during the first Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing on sexual abuse in over a decade victims of abuse came forward calling the military justice system ineffective, pointing to evidence that the military continues to protect perpetrators and silence victims. As the Pentagon moves towards encouraging women into more roles within the military, it must acknowledge factors like sexual violence, which make the military an increasingly unattractive workplace for women. Inviting women to join previously all male units in such an environment is irresponsible and unsafe. Simply opening up jobs for women does not address this deep-seated issue and does not make the military more welcoming for women.

Finally, there is continued sexist bias and sexist attitudes towards women in the US military more generally, and in regard to women in combat in particular. Arguments against women in combat often take the form of largely unsupported fears of the public’s reaction to “women in body bags”, ideals about the inherently nurturing, weak, and pacifist nature of women, concerns that men will not be able to control their sexual urges around women in close confines, speculation that men’s natural drive to protect women will overcome their ability to do their job, and a generalised sentiment that “women just don’t belong”.

Such arguments have been made throughout history and persist today. When advocating against including women in the British Home Guard during World War II, for example, British Member of Parliament David Robertson claimed, “a woman’s duty is to give life, not to take it.” More recently, during his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination Rick Santorum expressed concerns about the inherent emotional nature of female combatants, positing that “instead of focus[ing] on the mission, [male soldiers] may be more concerned about protecting … a woman in a vulnerable position.”

Such positions are based on gendered ideals about men and women’s inherent nature and removing the combat exclusion will not make them go away immediately. For example, in a Newsweek interview following the removal of the exclusion, law professor and military expert Kingsley Browne argued that men “aren’t hard-wired to follow women into danger” and claimed that there are “a lot of military people who think women in combat is a horrible idea, but it’s career suicide to say it.” In his Daily Beast opinion piece “The Truth About Women in Combat,” David Frum lamented that the removal of the combat exclusion constituted a denial of “reality” and reiterated previous arguments for sustaining the exclusion, including the need for male physical strength and the apparent inherent differences between men and women. An entire webpage titled “Grunts against women in combat,” with over 3000 members, was initiated to allow for frank discussions between servicemembers about the reasons why women should not be allowed on the front lines. One contributor noted that infantry life was “worth living” primarily because of the “unconditional brotherhood between myself and the men I fought next to in combat.” He predicted that if women are included into this atmosphere “that spirit will rapidly become a thing of the past”.

Again, the military cannot simply open up combat roles to women without addressing these lingering and embedded stereotypes and concerns regarding the impact of women on combat units. Indeed, one cannot help but imagine the following job advertisement for women’s new potential roles in combat:

“Wanted: women to fill direct combat roles; must be able to meet a physical standards test designed for men, be comfortable working in a largely all-male environment, accept the risk that they are more likely to be sexually assaulted than not, and must be willing to continually justify their contribution and value to the institution.”

Needless to say, removing barriers will simply not be enough to address some of the substantive gender crises that the military is facing. True, attitudes will likely change over time, as more women prove themselves competent within new roles. But this change needs to be facilitated with education, awareness training, and strong leadership on gender integration. Without widespread efforts to initiate structural changes and influence a hyper-masculine military culture, the policy pivot of reversing the combat exclusion will do little to “break the brass ceiling” or improve working conditions for women in the forces.