Careers for Women in the Military

Female Soldier Helping Another Soldier with Shirt
Sean Murphy / Getty Images

Women in the military, as in the civilian workforce, can choose from a variety of careers. Although there are a set of challenges that are unique to female workers, female members of the armed forces face additional ones.

Background of Women in the U.S. Military

Today, approximately 2.5 million women serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, according to The Service Women's Action Network. The all-volunteer force is comprised of four branches, all under the auspices of the Department of Defense (DOD). They are Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force (Know Your Military: Our Forces. US Department of Defense).

The Defense Advisory Committee of Women in the Services (DACOWITS) is mandated to advise the U.S. Secretary of Defense on matters and policies related to women serving in the Armed Forces of the United States. This independent entity reports that, as of July 2017, 17.6 percent of all active duty officers and 15.8 percent of all active duty enlisted personnel were women (2017 Annual Report. DACOWITS. February 28, 2018). "Historically, the air force has had the highest percentage of enlisted and officer women; however, by 2016, the navy had nearly caught up (Demographics of the U.S. Military. Council on Foreign Relations [CFR]). CFR looked at the demographics:

Percentage of Enlisted Female Service Members By Military Branch (2016)

  • Army: 14%
  • Navy: 19%
  • Marines: 8%
  • Air Force: 19%

Percentage of Female Officers By Military Branch (2016)

  • Army: 18%
  • Navy: 18%
  • Marines: 7.5%
  • Air Force: 21%

Military Careers

Military members are divided into two major categories: enlisted personnel and officers. Women can serve in either of these capacities and in any military jobs they choose. Enlisted personnel participate in or support military operations; operate equipment, as well as maintain and repair it; supervise junior personnel, and carry out technical and support duties.

Included under the category of enlisted personnel are administrative, combat specialty, construction, electronic and electrical equipment repair, healthcare, human resources development, support service, and vehicle and machinery mechanical personnel.

Enlisted Requirements

To enlist in the military, you must first take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). This placement exam will test your suitability for a military occupation. A recruiter can arrange for you to take the ASVAB. The results of this test, whether you meet the physical requirements of a particular job, and the services' needs at the time will determine the job for which you will be accepted.

You can also join the military by passing the General Educational Development (GED) test if you were unable to finish high school. Keep in mind that a GED is not considered equivalent to a high school diploma, and there might be other requirements for joining with a GED.

A high school or equivalency diploma is also required, and you must be at least 17 years of age (with a parent's permission) or older. Active duty members of the Army or Navy, must not be older than 34. The maximum age for entering the Marines is 29. New Air Force recruits can't be more than 39.

Officer Requirements

There are also several types of military officers. There are combat specialty officers who plan military operations. Engineering, science and technical officers serve in a variety of specialties reflecting their areas of expertise, including law, atmospheric science, meteorology, biological science, and social science. Executive, administrative, and managerial officers oversee administrative functions in the armed forces.

Healthcare officers are medical professionals such as nurses, doctors, dentists, and psychologists to name just a few. Human resource development officers are responsible for recruitment, placement, and training. Media and public affairs officers develop presentations and events for military personnel and the public.

Becoming an officer is much more competitve than enlisting. Only 18% of the entire force are officers.

Protective services officers protect people and property on military bases and vessels. Support services officers manage logistics, transportation, and supplies. Transportation officers' responsibilities include safely transporting personnel and equipment.

If you want to become an officer, a bachelor's degree that meets the stipulations of your desired career is needed. That degree can be earned through military service, by participating in the Reserved Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) program at a college, or by attending Officer Candidate School. In addition, you must meet the proper age requirements.

Prospective officers do not have to take the ASVAB (Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. "Military Careers," Occupational Outlook Handbook).

What Motivates Women to Join the Military?

Women aren't drawn to military service for the same reasons as men. According to a 2016 survey of recruits by the DOD’s Joint Advertising, Market Research & Studies (JAMRS) Office, 73 percent of women recruits versus 58 percent of male recruits cited travel as their reason for signing up. Fifty-two percent of female recruits joined in order to pay for future education while only 39 percent of males did so for that reason.

Women sought out careers in the armed forces as a way of helping others. Only 39 percent of men gave that reason. Forty-five percent of female recruits saw the educational opportunities within the service as a good reason for joining, but only 34 percent of male recruits did. More females (39 percent) than males (27 percent) chose to become members of the armed forces to make a positive difference in their communities (2017 Annual Report. DACOWITS. February 28, 2018).

Pay and Promotions

While civilian women face a substantial pay gap—by many reports women who work full time make just 80 cents for every dollar men earn—women and men in the military earn equal pay. That can make it a very appealing option. There is a gender gap, however, in their rate of promotion.

Not as many women as men move up the ranks in the armed forces, but that can be attributed to the fact that, due to some challenges, many don't stay in the service long enough for that to occur. With that said, military women may be more likely to be promoted than those working for Fortune 500 companies (Hammons, Megan. "Is There a Gender Gap in the Military" January 25, 2017).

Other Factors for Joining

What attracts more women to the Navy and Air Force over the Marines and Army? Deciding which branch to join is a personal decision that "deserves much study and thought," according to the balancecareers writer, Stew Smith ("Deciding Which Military Service to Join." The balancecareers. November 5, 2018).

Since women often say travel was their reason for enlisting, it is no surprise that many choose to serve in the Navy. Smith says it is "the best place for those who like to travel." He describes the Air Force as being far ahead in quality of life issues such as housing which may influence other women's decision.

Challenges for Women in the Military

Although women have been serving in the military for a very long time, it wasn't until 2016 that the DOD lifted all restrictions against women being in combat roles. Female members of the military still face significant challenges that contribute to relatively few joining to begin with and not many staying long enough to become officers.

Many female enlistees don't stay in the armed forces long enough to reap the benefits of career advancement to become officers. According to DACOWITS, "women leave the military at higher rates than their male counterparts at the junior and mid/field grades."

Female soldiers and sailors still face gender discrimination, and an alarming number are victims of sexual harassment and assault. There are also other severe problems that keep recruitment and retention of women in the military low. For example, equipment such as body armor is made to fit men and must be customized to women's bodies. Mothers face criticism for leaving their families to serve.

This advisory group seeks ways to keep that from happening by suggesting ways to increase retention rates, including improvements in parental leave. They have recently made great strides in this area but have more work to do. The Department of Defense implemented a maternity plan that includes 12 weeks of continuous leave after childbirth across all services. 

Fathers may take 14 days of paternity leave. Adoption leave is in flux (2017 Annual Report. Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. February 28, 2018). Each branch handles pregnancy of active duty members differently. It does not mean the end of a military career but jobs are typically modified.