Last week, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced his intention to lift the military’s ban on women soldiers serving in combat. Predictably, some members of the media were quick to hail this as a positive, or even necessary, change. Not much of the discussion welcoming this change considered its actual effects, using nothing more than the language of equality and rights. A more substantive issue is how the distribution of resources – in this case, soldiers, potential soldiers and their time – will change as a result of lifting this ban.

First, let’s consider the effects of allowing women in combat situations on wages and enlistment. To predict whether lifting the ban will increase or decrease pay for women in the military, we need to know what kind of good combat opportunity is to a solider or potential solider. In all jobs there are benefits and costs that ultimately decide the wage. For example, benefits may take form of employer-funded health care or free bus passes, while a cost could be a hazardous workplace environment. In general, benefits result in lower wages because they make people more willing to work at a given job – thus, they don’t need as a high a wage to be convinced to work. Conversely, costs increase wages, since potential workers need to be paid more in order to be convinced to work an unpleasant job.

So with this in mind, is this newly opened combat opportunity a cost or a benefit to women soldiers? I argue it is both, depending on how ambitious or motivated a given woman is. There will be female soldiers who take delight in the possibility of being called into combat. They see this as an opportunity to move up ranks and obtain awards and citations. So to these people, combat opportunity is a benefit. Thus, the military can convince them to enlist at a lower pay.

However, there is another group: the less ambitious ones. They are not intrinsically motivated to participate in combat. They see military service as nothing more than a source of income. Thus, they have an incentive to move up in rank in order get higher and higher pay. This kind of opportunity is only available to women soldiers who can expect not to be called into combat. Therefore, for this group, being called into combat is a disruption to their career development since being killed or injured would prevent them from advancing their rank and income.

To compensate for this added cost, they would need to be paid more for going into combat. But what is the effect on their base wage? Soldiers cannot refuse orders to go into combat, thereby eliminating their bargaining power over combat compensation. Given now this group faces the possibility of disruption of their long-term career progress, they will need a higher base wage in order to provide them with enough income to match the present value of their target long-term income under the ban.

Thus, as a result of lifting the ban on women on the frontline, different women soldiers may adjust the minimum wage they are willing to accept to remain in the army. It is not optimal to pay everyone according to the minimum rate acceptable to the more ambitious ones because that would be too low for the less ambitious. This, in turn, would decrease the number of available soldiers. However, this problem will not necessarily persist as a result of lifting the ban. As long as the ban is not reinstituted, the less ambitious ones will pass on overtime and any woman considering enlisting must be intrinsically motivated.

Heikal Badrulhisham ([email protected]) is a freshman.