Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

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

  • Growing Presence. From 1973 to 2010 the number of active-duty enlisted women in the military has grown from about 42,000 to 167,000. Over that same period, the enlisted force as a whole has seen a decrease of about 738,000 service members.
  • Ranks. While a smaller number of women than men serve overall, a slightly greater proportion among the ranks of women are commissioned officers, compared with the share of men who are officers (17% vs. 15%).
  • Demographics. The current active-duty female force is more racially diverse than the male force. Nearly one-third (31%) of active-duty women are black compared with only 16% of men, and a smaller share of active-duty women than men are white (53% vs. 71%). While military women are less likely than their male counterparts to be married (46% vs. 58%), those women who do marry are much more likely than men to wed someone who is also in the active-duty military (48% vs. 7%).
  • Combat. Among living veterans from any era, only 15% of women served in combat, compared with 35% of men. Since the 1990s, changes in military policies and a decade-long conflict have contributed to an increase in combat exposure among women, from 7% among pre-1990 female veterans to 24% of post-1990 female veterans.
  • Re-entry. The Pew Research survey finds that women veterans are just as likely as men to experience the struggles and benefits of service upon discharge — fully half say they experienced strains in family relations and 42% feel they have suffered from post-traumatic stress. On the other hand, 97% feel proud of their service.
  • Opinions of the Wars. The Pew Research survey also finds that women veterans are more critical than their male counterparts of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—fully 63% say the Iraq war was not worth fighting and 54% say Afghanistan has not been worth it (compared with 47% and 39% of male veterans, respectively). Among the general public, by contrast, there are no significant differences by gender in the share who say the post-9/11 wars were not worth fighting.

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.

  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.
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