Marines Delay Female Fitness Standards
The Marine Corps’ plan to make women take the same fitness test as men has hit a wee snag.
AP (“Marines Delay Female Fitness Plan After Half Fail“):
More than half of female Marines in boot camp can’t do three pullups, the minimum standard that was supposed to take effect with the new year, prompting the Marine Corps to delay the requirement, part of the process of equalizing physical standards to integrate women into combat jobs.
The delay rekindled sharp debate in the military on the question of whether women have the physical strength for some military jobs, as service branches move toward opening thousands of combat roles to them in 2016.
Although no new timetable has been set on the delayed physical requirement, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos wants training officials to “continue to gather data and ensure that female Marines are provided with the best opportunity to succeed,” Capt. Maureen Krebs, a Marine spokeswoman, said Thursday.
Starting with the new year, all female Marines were supposed to be able to do at least three pullups on their annual physical fitness test and eight for a perfect score. The requirement was tested in 2013 on female recruits at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C., but only 45 percent of women met the minimum, Krebs said.
The Marines had hoped to institute the pullups on the belief that pullups require the muscular strength necessary to perform common military tasks such as scaling a wall, climbing up a rope or lifting and carrying heavy munitions.
Officials felt there wasn’t a medical risk to putting the new standard into effect as planned across the service, but that the risk of losing recruits and hurting retention of women already in the service was unacceptably high, she said.
The reaction is predictable:
The decision to suspend the scheduled pull-up requirement “is a clear indication” that plans to move women into direct ground combat fighting teams will not work, said Elaine Donnelly, president of the conservative Center for Military Readiness and a critic of allowing women into infantry jobs.
“When officials claim that men and women are being trained the same, they are referring to bare minimums, not maximum qualifications that most men can meet but women cannot,” Donnelly wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “Awarding gender-normed scores so that women can succeed lowers standards for all. Women will suffer more injuries and resentment they do not deserve, and men will be less prepared for the demands of direct ground combat.”
But that conflates a lot of separate issues.
It’s pretty clear that very few women are cut out for the infantry. Thus far, in tests conducted with the most highly motivated and physically fit women the Marine Corps can find, zero women have made it through infantry officer training and only a handful have made it through the enlisted course. While we’ll likely figure out ways to improve retention rates through better training—we, after all, have much more experience training infantrymen than infantrywomen—we’re never going to be able to produce female grunts in large scale without lowering standards. Everyone should be fine with that reality; we knew it going in.
Unless we lower standards, though, there’s no reason to think that the relative handful of women who complete training will present an increased danger to themselves or their squad mates. It’s the standards, not the sex of the soldiers or Marines, that matter.
It’s also rather obvious that pull-ups are harder on aggregate for women than men. News flash: we’re built differently. Pretty much any healthy male of military age can be trained in short order to do three pull-ups. I was never an athlete but was doing fifteen or more in my prime. While I’m barely able to muster one at this point, I expect to be back to at least the minimum standard in a few weeks even at the ripe old age of 48. (Indeed, while the max score requirements go down with age, three remains the male minimum even in the top, over-46 group.)
The question, though, is whether the ability to do pull-ups is a true proxy for being able to accomplish on the job tasks, or merely an easy but male-specific means of assessing upper body fitness. At Airborne school, which was long gender-integrated even back when I attended in the Stone Age, males had to do some significant number of pull-ups; I seem to recall it being eight but I could be off a bit. The justification was that this was necessary because a trooper needed to be able to pull up on his risers to control the chute in the air. The women, however, didn’t have to do pull-ups at all. As it turned out, though, they were no less able to safely operate a parachute than we were. [Although, as a commenter points out, extremely lightweight soldiers—a category mostly filled by women—have issues being blown around exiting the aircraft.]
So, the bottom line is that the focus should be on figuring out what standards are required to perform the required duties of a given military occupational specialty—as well as to simply serve in combat, where even service support specialists can sometimes be called on to perform infantry-type duties on a limited basis—and then to train to and enforce those standards. If that results in very few women being able to serve in specialties that are glamorous and career-enhancing, that’s too damn bad. But we shouldn’t deny fully capable soldiers and Marines the ability to serve simply on the basis of arbitrary, even if long-standing, litmus tests.