U.S. military offers lessons in enlisting women warriors
Time to validate the standards for job performance, rather than fixed ideas of ‘fitness’
Last year the Pentagon lifted its ban on women in front-line combat roles based on years of nonstop war where front lines were blurred and women were serving, wounded and dying alongside male soldiers.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff decided it was time to integrate women “to the maximum extent possible.” Determining that extent would involve careful review of the physical tasks of each combat job and how best to test for them.
The DoD’s personnel director said, “It’s not a matter of lowering or raising standards. The key is to validate the standard to make sure it’s the right standard for the occupation.”
The military gave itself until January 2016 to complete the review and develop gender-neutral standards. If recent headlines are any indication, they may need to start over.
Law enforcement has also been trying to assess the physical demands of modern policing and how to test for them — with difficulty, controversy and continuing disagreement. Perhaps there are lessons in the military’s endeavor.
A Few Good Women
No timetable has been set for the delay. The Marine Corps Commandant wants training officials to “continue to gather data and ensure that female Marines are provided with the best opportunity to succeed.”
How might that proceed? I have three suggestions which might apply to police physical fitness standards.
Re-engineering Tests and Tasks
Messing gives the example of a baker — a traditionally male job. The decision to make sacks of sugar 40 pounds instead of 20 was based on the average (male) baker. But they could just as easily be 20 pounds. Further, women could likely lift the 40-pound bag if shown or allowed to develop a technique suited to their bodies.
Messing’s point is that many job tasks are adaptable. They’ve just usually been adapted to men because men traditionally did them. Some people argue that adapting job tasks to allow for women’s average capabilities is lowering standards, admitting women aren’t as capable as men, or creating “double standards.” But the job, techniques and equipment were designed to “fit” men’s average capabilities and so are biased in favor of male workers.
Some women will still not be able to perform a job. But often the equipment and techniques used are not suited for the average woman. This is then used to argue the average woman is not suited for the job. Messing suggests instead:
“Fitness for a job must be considered as an interaction between individuals (with all their possibilities for change) and a plastic, adaptable work environment. But when a woman wants to take a nontraditional job, people regard fitness as a static characteristic of the woman alone. They ask whether she is strong enough…” (p. 37)
“The whole idea of pre-employment testing seems to be based on a misunderstanding of how workers interact dynamically with their jobs... This misconception results in strength tests that are not related to real-life job requirements...” (p. 39-40)
The military would do well to review job tasks with both eyes open to the adaptability of the tasks and equipment. In fact, it should incentivize women to offer ideas for how equipment and tasks might adapted. So should law enforcement.
Pull-ups During Combat?
Other readers observed that if a Marine couldn’t do three pull-ups, she probably couldn’t pull herself out of the water into a boat. I question that.
If the question is a soldier’s ability to pull herself into a boat, test that. Put her in the water with her gear (and her added buoyancy from that extra fat women have) and tell her she has to get into the boat — any way she can. She doesn’t have to do any pull-ups first. She can pull herself up to where she can hook a leg over the gunnel and roll a—first into the boat. Test women (and men) with actual job tasks and incentivize them to come up with easier, more efficient ways to accomplish them.
Women May Need to Work Harder
However, if the military and policing are going to require non-job related upper body strength tests for which men have a known advantage, they should provide additional preparation for women.
Give women a fitness regimen designed for them at the beginning of their application or enlistment that targets the standards they must meet. Better yet, post it on a website.
I recently sprang for some sessions with a personal trainer. In my first session, I did 2.5 pushups from the toes. Now I do 100, divided into four sets.
On New Year’s Eve, one of those sets was 50 in a row, “plus one more for Trooper Duncan.”
While opposing women in combat, Robert Maginnis, author of Deadly Consequences- How Cowards Are Pushing Women Into Combat, distinguishes counterinsurgency operations, in which women have assumed important and successful roles, from high-intensity combat. Harris says counterinsurgency is like “a heavily armed police force.” So, even Harris supports women in armed police force operations.
It’s Not about Diversity
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