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Entitlement hinders opportunity

– Get them up front, yesterday. That will be the policy of the Defense Department in coming months after Secretary Leon Panetta reversed a ban on women in combat.

It’s also the position of those impatient with the pace at which women have been gaining top positions in the corporate field or government. At the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, a big theme was that the appearance by women there has never exceeded 20 percent.

Discrimination against women is the explanation often offered. Perhaps there is another reason. That reason has to do with the difference between opportunity and entitlement.

Start with the frontline jobs, and what an army in a war can handle. The truth is that a general at war doesn’t have much time to think about these sensitive personnel policies. His mind is on victory. He, and for that matter his soldier, will accept just about anyone who can yield that military result.

An anecdote from the early 1990s, a time when the United States was not at war, reminds us of this. Then, the debate was about gays in the military. President Bill Clinton was being roasted for his “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule.

It happened during a U.S. visit by a leader with greater security concerns than ours: Ariel Sharon of Israel. A reporter asked Sharon, the legendary general, what the Israeli army’s position was on gays, expecting a tough “yes” or “no.” Instead, Sharon turned to a subordinate and asked: What exactly is our policy? It turned out that the great military commander had his mind on other topics.

A recent Pew Research Center poll suggests that Americans, civilian and military, accept the idea of women up front more than they used to. Credit goes in part to the women who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan and ended up in combat despite an official ban on their presence. In fact, those surveyed couldn’t decide whether lifting the old ban was a major or a minor change.

As for those who resist the idea of women on battle lines, even they may not oppose the idea of all women up front. They probably resist because they are concerned they will be forced to accept as colleagues women who aren’t ready for the combat zone and who may reduce the likelihood of victory.

When they turn down a man, they can say it’s because that man isn’t qualified. They will hesitate to turn down an unqualified woman for fear of being labeled discriminatory, bigoted or worse. What they oppose isn’t the opportunity but the entitlement. If broadening women’s presence in battles systematically hurts the outcome, everyone, presumably, will want to reduce the number of female front fighters. But we won’t be able to, because fighting up front will have been enshrined as a women’s right.

The same concern holds for work in the civilian sector. One argument of those observing the ratio of women at Davos or on corporate boards is that women fail because they are relegated to jobs that are “staff,” rather than “line.” In this distinction, staff means just what it sounds like – waiting on somebody. Line work, by contrast, is accepting a certain responsibility and being accountable only for producing results at pre-established, periodic points. Women say they want line jobs and should be able to try them.

In some cases, women are right. The great fallacy of executive life is that line jobs are always harder than staff jobs. Line jobs give more freedom, and many women are efficient enough to use that freedom to raise their children while commanding troops or sales divisions.

But one thing about line jobs is they don’t always feature solid vacations, family leave or time for evening pickups. Women can want all those things, as men do, but the reality is that a burden of “line” service is not complaining when giving up hours is necessary to complete the line assignment. It isn’t that corporate boards or chief executives don’t want women as leaders. What they want are line leaders who won’t allow their private lives to intrude on company projects when necessary.

This can be good news for many women who want line jobs and autonomy. This is the kind of woman whose job is externally oriented, measured by external criteria.

Other women, especially those who work best internally, have trouble with a line job. And, of course, line jobs are risky jobs.

In any case, employers of both sexes don’t want to be required to employ women in these posts. And yes, sexism, male and female, is part of the mix.

Still, the best step for men or women who seek to be out there in a top job is to be wanted for the job because of skill and not gender. The relief that those in the personnel field will feel at not being required to promote women or any other group can yield surprises.

Women can’t have it both ways, blaming others for giving them rough assignments even as they demand them. It’s possible that women may get more opportunities when they claim fewer entitlements.

Amity Shlaes, director of the Four Percent Growth Project at the Bush Institute, is a Bloomberg News columnist.