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In navies, last gender barrier is the ocean’s surface

In navies, last gender barrier is the ocean’s surface

To everyone’s surprise, 2013 might prove a historic year for women in the U.S. military, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced Wednesday that the Pentagon will remove the ban on women in combat.

All the attention is focusing on ground troops, but it’s actually on the high seas that the last glass ceiling, or in this case high-strength alloy steel hull, is being shattered. Last October, the Navy announced that beginning in January, women will be allowed to serve on attack submarines for the first time, and the number of women in crews on Trident-class submarines will also be increased.

And the United States isn’t alone. Britain has also said that this year will see the beginning of female participation on Royal Navy submarines, and countries such as Canada and Australia have already seen successful integration of women in submarine crews.

While these changes are being welcomed by men and women around the United States, the question remains: Why have submarines proved the final stubborn frontier? Out of the 42 countries that use submarines, only six allow women to serve.

According to the BBC, the British Navy banned women’s participation for their own good, citing "health concerns about carbon dioxide." Unsurprisingly, two years ago, a study by the Institute of Naval Medicine deemed these concerns unfounded. The U.S. Navy, on the other hand, raised questions about cramped quarters and privacy:

On fast-attack submarines, approximately 150 personnel live in space the size of a three-bedroom house. Officers sleep in three-person staterooms, each the size of a small closet, and all 15 of them share a single shower, sink and toilet.

For female officers to live on the submarines, some three-person berths would be reserved for them and they would share the bathroom — known as a "head" — with men in a time-sharing arrangement.

But logistics and CO2 aside, the Navy has always been a bit behind the times when it comes to female participation. In the United States, it wasn’t until 1978 that women were allowed to participate in surface warfare, and many of them left in the 1980s because of the lack of opportunities available. Now, as the Navy suffers from lack of personnel and women become more dominant in fields like engineering, they are finally being allowed below the surface.