Fewer jobs for Private Benjamin
Washington — After a decade of rapid growth, the increase in the number of women in US military service will slow considerably in coming years.
The integration of men and women in the armed forces (especially in basic training) has not worked out as well as anticipated, officials say, nor have the differences in physical capability been adequately considered in assigning jobs. Beyond this, the number of jobs that could place one in a combat situation (from which women are legally barred) has been found to be larger than earlier thought.
In particular, the Army will be slowing down the number of women it recruits and limiting the kinds of jobs they can hold. In a report to be made public Aug. 30, Army officials say they will increase from 38 to 61 the number of job categories that are not available to women. There are 350 such categories in total.
Included here are positions involving very heavy lifting (more than 100 pounds), which includes nearly two-thirds of the Army's jobs. Combat-related positions such as diver, radar operator, and specialist in nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) warfare also will now be off-limits to women. Other jobs, including plumbers, carpenters, and electricians, also will be excluded because ''the preponderance of their work would be with the forward troops,'' according to a Pentagon spokesman.
Over the next few years, the number of women in the Army will go from 65,000 to 70,000, Pentagon officials say. This is well below a Carter administration goal of 100,000. But at nearly 10 percent of the Army's total, it still is considerably above the 1.5 percent figure of a decade ago.
In all, the number of female enlisted and commissioned personnel in all branches of the armed forces is expected to increase to more than 200,000 by 1986.
Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger told the three service secretaries that they ''must aggressively break down those remaining barriers that prevent us from making the fullest use of the capabilities of women.''
This may not seem to square with the decision in April to eliminate coed basic training (beginning Aug. 30) or with the latest announcement limiting jobs available to women in the Army. But the administration's rationale is that the high attrition rate for women (14 percent higher than for men) is because many women have not been directed to the jobs for which they are most capable or which they preferred.
A 1981 background review of women in the military by the Pentagon's manpower chief concluded that ''increasing the representation of women in the military and particularly in nontraditional female occupations as an end in itself may have been overstressed.''
This report noted that many women were being assigned to jobs that were often their second choice, and that the result was ''disproportionately high rates of job migration and attrition.''
Maria Elena Torralva, who chairs the civilian defense advisory committee on women in the services, agrees with the new shift in Pentagon policy regarding women.
''If women are placed in jobs they can't perform, they aren't going to stick around,'' said Mrs. Torralva. ''I see this in line with the (defense) secretary's commitment to finding the most positive way of keeping our women and the most effective use of women.''
The committee that Mrs. Torralva chairs (31 of whose 34 members are women) feels strongly that the combat exclusion should be lifted. But this is a matter for Congress to decide, and there is no indication that lawmakers will reverse themselves in this highly controversial area.
The rapid increase in the number of women in military service caused some concern among commanders who felt their presence harmed unit morale and performance. But there are other indications that women equal - and in some cases exceed - men in certain areas.
Last year's Pentagon report noted ''general agreement that, individually, military women perform their assigned tasks as well as military men.''
Women lose more time for medical reasons (including the fact that typically 10 percent are pregnant). But men are absent without permission more than twice as often and 10 times as likely to be court-martialed.
In recent months, the economy has helped encourage more young men and women to enlist. As a result, all of the services have been setting records in the numbers and quality of volunteers. Some observers see this as another reason for the military to slow down its active recruiting of women into the all-volunteer force.
In any case, the number of women (notably officers and senior enlisted personnel) will continue to increase, particularly if Weinberger meets his goal of more leadership and managerial positions for them.