In 2010, the US Navy lifted their ban on women aboard submarines, and an estimated 130 female officers and enlistees now serve beneath the waves. But officers, among them Lt. Marquette Leveque, have complained of the challenges of being a woman on a submarine.
"Privacy is important anywhere you are," she told Stripes. "We live on this boat, as well as work there."
For instance, most subs only have one washroom, shared between the sexes. Shorter women may struggle to reach valves or look at screens placed with a man's height in mind.
Dating back to the Turtle, an acorn-shaped wooden submarine that was the first recorded use of a combat submersible (albeit to little effect) during the American Revolution, naval submarines have been designed with male operators in mind.
Until now. Enter defense contractor Electric Boat, the primary builder of US Navy submarines for over a century. They are modifying Columbia-class ballistic-missile and Virginia-class fast-attack subs with female operators in mind, from separate sleeping and bathing areas to more subtle changes, like lowering overhead valves or installing steps for hard-to-reach spots.
"We have a clean sheet of paper, so from the ground up, we'll optimize for both men and women," said Brian Wilson, the director of the initiative. He did not have a cost estimate for the modifications.
The first vessel to carry the modifications, the future USS New Jersey (a Virginia-class submarine) will be completed in 2021.
Lt. Lily Hinz, the public affairs officer for Submarine Group 10 in Florida, told the Florida Times-Union that the US Navy's eventual goal is for every submarine to carry one female crewmember for every four men. Training is gender neutral because every submariner must be of equal reliability regardless of sex.
In 1985, Norway became the first country to allow women to serve on submarines. Sweden, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom followed suit. Many nations, including Pakistan, Japan, France and Turkey, continue to prohibit women from the Silent Service. In 2015, Russia announced that they would allow women to serve on their submarines after 2018.