(SKY NEWS) – Women will be allowed to join UK Special Forces for the first time, removing the final barrier to women in Britain’s armed forces.
Gavin Williamson has announced that all roles will now be open to both genders in the SAS and SBS.
Speaking at a military training exercise on Salisbury Plain, the defence secretary said: “Women have led the way with exemplary service in the armed forces for over 100 years, working in a variety of specialist and vital roles.
“So I am delighted that from today, for the first time in its history, our armed forces will be determined by ability alone and not gender.”
Although women have served alongside special forces for many years, in support roles such as intelligence and as medics, they will now be able to apply for selection in the same way their male colleagues do.
It is understood that women already hold positions in the Special Reconnaissance Regiment but not the better known SAS and SBS.
There will be no change in the elite selection process, known as one of the toughest in the world. It includes a series of timed marches, carrying heavy loads across mountainous and rough terrain in the Brecon Beacons.
In 2016, then prime minister David Cameron announced that the ban on women serving in combat roles would be lifted.
That opened up infantry, cavalry and the armoured corps. The first female tank commanders have now qualified.
Tank gunner Lance Corporal Kat Dixon said: “I fit in, I get on with everyone, I don’t feel like I’m that different. I haven’t noticed any massive changes.
“You just get on with it, don’t think about how many women have done it before and just try your best.”
When asked if she felt under more pressure to prove herself because she is a woman, she replied: “Everyone has to prove themselves in the British Army – it’s not something just anyone can do.”
From Thursday, women who are already serving in the military will be allowed to apply to transfer to infantry roles. Women not yet in the military will be able to join from January 2019.
There had been concern that women would not have the physical ability to match their male peers, and that it would complicate situations to have men and women living in close quarters in combat situations.
But those fears were dismissed in a review overseen by the current Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, and the ban was lifted.
It brings Britain in line with other nations including the US, Israel and Australia.
Although this latest move will be welcomed by many, the number of women in senior military positions is still very low.
As of October 2017 women represented only 10.3% of the regular military – that equates to just over 15,000 females.
The figures are even worse among senior ranks: just 3.6% of the most senior roles are occupied by women.
In his final interview before leaving the job, the previous head of the British armed forces told Sky News that more must be done.
“I want to say, loud and clear, that we need to do better at the advancement of women in the ranks of the armed forces,” Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach said.
“We need to do better in ensuring that women feature in the more senior ranks in the armed forces, and that is happening, and I can easily see a future where one day my role is occupied by a woman.
“We need to accept that, embrace it, and get on with it.”