Women in Combat: The Numbers Racket

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Stephen Morton / Getty Images

A female Marine trains for combat at Parris Island, S.C.

The Pentagon will detail Tuesday when women will be eligible to train for and join the U.S. military’s most elite units, including Army Rangers and Navy SEALs.

But it’s not those dates on the calendar – 2015 for Rangers and 2016 for SEALs — that are going to be the most important.

These are the numbers to keep your eyes on:

— How will separate physical-training requirements for men and women be changed to a single set that both men and women will have to pass to gain entry to such units. The Army will spend the next two years developing gender-neutral Ranger standards. The tougher the numbers, the smaller the number of women who will be eligible.

Under a 1993 federal law, the defense secretary:

(1) shall ensure that qualification of members of the Armed Forces for, and continuance of members of the Armed Forces in, that occupational career field is evaluated on the basis of common, relevant performance standards, without differential standards of evaluation on the basis of gender;

(2) may not use any gender quota, goal, or ceiling except as specifically authorized by law; and

(3) may not change an occupational performance standard for the purpose of increasing or decreasing the number of women in that occupational career field.

— The calculation of such standards isn’t always clear-cut, as a May report from the Congressional Research Service noted:

A plain reading of the term suggests that men and women would be required to meet the same physical standards in order to be similarly assigned. However, in the past, the Services have used this and similar terms to suggest that men and women must exert the same amount of energy in a particular task, regardless of the work that is actually accomplished by either.

For example, the Air Force Fitness Test Scoring for males under 30 years of age requires males to run 1.5 miles in a maximum time of 13:36 (min.:secs.): the female maximum time is 16:22. A female who runs at this slower rate would actually receive a higher score than a male who runs nearly three minutes faster. The minimum number of push-ups for males and females in the same age group is 33 and 18, respectively. In the case of push-ups, males and females who achieve the minimum passing number of push-ups receive the same score.
As written, this language can be the subject of differing interpretations. Since no standards exist for women in the then-closed occupations, would women be required to meet the current existing standards, would separate standards be created, or would the existing standards be re-evaluated?

What is lacking is a clear definition of “gender-neutral” vis-a-vis the goals to be attained…

Although it can be argued that there are women who can meet and exceed many male physical standards, the experiences with the Canadian military and recent Marine Corp Infantry Officers Course (IOC), suggest that large numbers of women will not succeed if held to these same higher standards. In addition, forcing women to continuously meet higher standards has been found to increase their injury and attrition rates

— There is acknowledgement in the military that many such requirements have little relationship to the actual combat billets they’re designed for. But any relaxation of such standards will elicit cries of a “softening” military from some quarters.

— These numbers all will play a major role into the creation of the most important number of all: just what share of special-operations units needs to be female in order for such units to have any females in the ranks.

There is widespread agreement that in any gender-integration effort the minority needs to reach a certain level – often from 10% to 20% — to ensure the optimum chance of that integration taking root and ultimately succeeding. But maximizing that number by minimizing standards will doom the effort.

Women today account for 14% of the U.S. military and – given widespread and growing charges of sexual assaults – that number may not be high enough.