December 22, 2011

Women in the U.S. Military: Growing Share, Distinctive Profile

The women who serve in today’s military differ from the men who serve in a number of ways. Compared with their male counterparts, a greater share of military women are black and a smaller share are married. Also, women veterans of the post-9/11 era are less likely than men to have served in combat and more likely to be critical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In other ways, however, military women are not different from military men: they are just as likely to be officers; they joined the armed services for similar reasons; and post-9/11 veterans of both sexes have experienced a similar mix of struggles and rewards upon returning to civilian life.

Since 1973, when the United States military ended conscription and established an all-volunteer force, the number of women serving on active duty has risen dramatically. The share of women among the enlisted ranks has increased seven-fold, from 2% to 14%, and the share among commissioned officers has quadrupled, from 4% to 16%.

Department of Defense policy prohibits the assignment of women to any “unit below brigade level whose primary mission is direct ground combat.”1 While this policy excludes women from being assigned to infantry, special operations commandos and some other roles, female members of the armed forces may still find themselves in situations that require combat action, such as defending their units if they come under attack.2

This report explores the changing role of women in the military using several data sources. Two Department of Defense publications — Population Representation in the Military Forces, FY2010 and Demographics 2010: Profile of the Military Community — provide the overall trends in military participation by gender, as well as demographic and occupational profiles of male and female military personnel.

The report also draws on data from two surveys of military veterans: a Pew Research Center survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,853 veterans conducted July 28-Sept. 4, 2011, and the July 2010 Current Population Survey (CPS) Veterans Supplement (n=9,739 veterans). The CPS data provides information about the overall female veteran population (n=636). The Pew Research survey data provides insight into the experiences of post-9/11 female veterans (n=135), including the mix of benefits and burdens they see resulting from their service. The analysis of the Pew Research survey should be interpreted with caution due to small sample sizes. However, any differences highlighted in the report are statistically significant.

Key Findings of the Report

About the Data

The Veterans Survey

The attitudes of post-9/11 veterans reported in this study are based on a nationally representative sample of 1,853 men and women who served in the military and are no longer on active duty. The sample included 712 post-9/11 veterans — 135 of whom were women and 577 of whom were men. This analysis should be interpreted with caution due to small sample sizes. However, any differences highlighted in the report are statistically significant.

The margin of sampling error for results based on the entire sample of veterans is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points; the margin of sampling error for those who served after 9/11 is plus or minus 5.7 percentage points. Among the post-9/11 group, the margin of sampling error for women is plus or minus 12.7 and for men is plus or minus 6.3.

Veterans were interviewed by telephone or via the internet from July 28 to Sept. 4, 2011. For a more detailed description of the survey methodology, see “War and Sacrifice in the Post-9/11 Era: The Military-Civilian Gap”.

Demographic Data

The demographic and occupational profile of the active-duty military from 1973 to 2010 is primarily based on the latest available data published by the Department of Defense. Trends over time and data on the characteristics of the military came from Demographics 2010: Profile of the Military Community and Population Representation in the Military Services, FY2010.

Cite this publication: Eileen Patten and Kim Parker. “Women in the U.S. Military: Growing Share, Distinctive Profile.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (December 22, 2011) http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/12/22/women-in-the-u-s-military-growing-share-distinctive-profile/, accessed on July 23, 2014.

  1. See “Report to the White House Council on Women and Girls." Department of Defense, September 1, 2009.
  2. According to military sociologist Brenda Moore, the nature of the post-9/11 conflicts against guerrilla insurgencies “blurs the distinction between front-line and rear areas.” NPR interview, Oct. 1, 2007.