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
“Marines delay female fitness plan after half fail,” shouted news headlines just this month. More than half of female Marines in boot camp couldn’t do three pull-ups — the minimum standard for any Marine, male or female.

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.

  1. Review the job tasks and consider re-engineering possibilities.
  2. Make sure fitness standards assess a physical requirement of the job.
  3. Prepare potential enlistees to meet the standards.

Re-engineering Tests and Tasks
When jobs have traditionally been held by men, pre-employment tests and job tasks tend to be engineered for the typical male. Karen Messing addresses this in her book, One-Eyed Science (Temple University), discussed online by Denise A. Copelton, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Augustana College

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?
I’ve previously discussed with PoliceOne readers the wisdom of push-ups as a pre-employment test. In comments to the article about the failure rate of female Marines to do 3 pull-ups, some readers questioned how often soldiers stop fighting to do pull-ups.

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
Testosterone gives men a significant edge in upper body strength, so women will have to work harder to meet the upper body strength demands of combat and policing where re-engineering isn’t possible. There may be some physical tasks that women can’t do — such as repeatedly loading 55-pound tank shells. Then again, there may be a way to make an equally effective, lighter shell, a method of loading it using more lower body strength, or a new assistive tool.

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.”

I’m 59-years-old.

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
I suspect women may never work physically demanding and dangerous jobs in proportionate number to men. It would take a lot of job task and cultural re-engineering. As a civilian citizen, I don’t even care about that. I simply want those motivated and able to protect and serve to have the opportunity. Our nation needs them.

About the author

As a state and federal prosecutor for over 10 years, Val’s trial work has been seen nationally on ABC'S PRIMETIME LIVE, Discovery Channel's Justice Files, in USA Today, The National Enquirer and REDBOOK.

Described by Calibre Press as "the indisputable master of entertrainment," Val is now an international law enforcement trainer and writer who appears in person and on TV, radio, video productions, webcasts, newspapers, books and magazines. She has been a regular contributor to a number of law enforcement publications and has been featured in the Calibre Press Online Street Survival Newsletter, Police Chief magazine, The Law Enforcement Trainer magazine, and The Royal Canadian Mounted Police Gazette.

When she's not working, Val can be found flying her airplane with her retriever, a shotgun, a fly rod, and high aspirations. Visit Val at www.valvanbrocklin.com and contact her at info@valvanbrocklin.com.

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