As the Pentagon looks to lift the restriction on women in ground combat, questions abound on how best to ensure full and equal access to military jobs and to balance inclusion with the need to sustain operational preparedness in the armed forces. One thing is certain: maintaining separate gender-based physical requirements is an inconsistent and antiquated policy that threatens both equality and mission readiness.
To be clear, the question of whether women should be allowed to fight has already been definitively answered. Those who are still wringing their hands over sending our daughters to war willfully ignore the reality that women have been dying in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than a decade.
For the rest of us, the key issues at hand are more procedural and administrative than social. The challenge is how to achieve gender integration with the least amount of distraction and loss of readiness. And because of the inherent physicality of ground combat, much of the current debate has focused on how to write new and fair physical fitness standards for a gender-equal military.
Last November, the Marine Corps attempted to address this problem by redesigning their physical training (PT) test so that both sexes would have to perform the same minimum number of pull-ups to rate a passing score. Prior to this change, women had been allowed to perform an alternate test, a flexed-arm hang, in lieu of the more difficult pull-up.
The proposed rule change effectively set a unisex threshold for all marines. No one, regardless of gender, could be weaker than three pull-ups. This change may seem modest but was actually quite radical. Historically, all service branches have employed different, and lower, physical fitness standards for women.
The problem with the new unisex pull-up test is that 55% of female Marine recruits have failed it. Faced with this embarrassingly high rate, last week the Marine Corps Commandant backtracked and announced that the implementation of the pull-up standard would be delayed while more data is gathered. In a statement, spokeswoman Captain Maureen Krebs said this delay would “ensure that female Marines are provided with the best opportunity to succeed.”
There is no doubt that defining success downward leads to a lower failure rate. There is also no doubt that the physically strongest woman will never do as many pull-ups as the physically strongest man. But instead of lowering expectations for all women as a result, the Marines would do better to test recruits in ways that are more job-specific and less centered on gendered fitness norms.
Such a system would abandon the idea of applying a single pull-up standard to the entire Marine Corps. Rather than use a one-size-fits-all approach, it would tailor a spectrum of fitness standards to correspond more closely to the actual physical demands of each military occupational specialty (MOS).
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