The Irony: An Unequal Application of Gender Equality

Capt. Rachel Hanlon, center (then a first lieutenant shown in the Hawaii Army Weekly on p. A-1, Nov. 23, 2012), completes a 12-mile road march on Schofield Barracks, Nov. 8, 2012.

A FEMALE JUNIOR ARMY OFFICER’S PERSPECTIVE

At a time when gender equality in the military stands on such contentious ground, I think there exists an ironic disparity between the contemporary manifestations of this debate. The specific topics that have recently drawn the most attention are the integration of females into Army Ranger School and combat Military Occupational Specialties (MOS). And for these particular microcosms, there are those who have evenly championed for female inclusion in combat roles with the condition of equal standards for males and females. Grounds for female integration include: The term “Soldier” is a gender-neutral concept, regardless if females biologically and physiologically differ from males; if a woman can meet the standards, then inclusion should be permitted; and finally, the main goal of physical fitness tests and standards is to build the most talented and combat effective team — regardless of gender. It seems ironic that the manner in which we apply these three justifications is discriminatory in and of itself.

Presently, we apply this gender equality reasoning to the less than 1% of the female population in the military who would both qualify and desire to serve in a combat arms capacity. These women are outliers. While I applaud the efforts and victories of the 1%, the partiality that has been applied to the subject of female equality is problematic. Furthermore, this discriminatory application of the gender equality movement is ultimately detrimental to the goal: maximize talent and combat effectiveness. A matter that deserves equal or greater concern is gender equality for the remaining 99% of females in the military who — due to their sheer number — have more impact than the 1% of the outlying females who would be willing and able to serve in a combat arms capacity. If we take these gender equality justifications, in their simplest form, they are:

  • The term “Soldier” should be gender-neutral — everyone is a Soldier first.
  • As long as women can meet the same standard, they should serve in any capacity they are able.
  • The endgame is to maximize talent and combat effectiveness.

Let us examine the current policies. A 17-year-old male Soldier, at a minimum, is expected to perform 42 push-ups, 53 sit-ups, and 15:54 two mile run. A 17-year-old female Soldier is expected to perform 19 push-ups, 53 sit-ups, and run an 18:54 two mile run. A similar variance in fitness standards reaches all age groups in all branches of service. Based on the cynicism I have observed in my peers and Soldiers, and the opposition I have seen from various media outlets, I would contend that the divergence of physical fitness standards is one of the most divisive subjects today. This has been aggravated by the recent integration of females into Army Ranger School and the announcement of their inclusion in traditional combat MOSs.

The discriminatory application of fitness standards is to the detriment of building the most talented and combat effective team. Women fire the same weapons. Women wear the same gear. And women are expected to carry the same weight in a combat or training environment. As an organization, we preach equality of opportunity and gender-neutrality. Then how can we advocate inequitable policy that influences arguably one of the most important standards to the safety, welfare, and combat effectiveness of military units? How can we passively accept such sizeable gaps in the requirements for the physical performance of males and females? On a female private’s first day at Army Basic Training, we have essentially informed her that she is expected to perform at a standard much lower than that of her male peers. We have told her that at no point during her time in the Army is she expected to perform at the same level of fitness as her male peers. And so it should not surprise us when females consistently perform lower than males. In a profession — that at its core — is the application of physical force and violence, fitness is perpetually recognized as absolutely essential. Female servicemembers who are capable of meeting the minimum male standards are the exception, not the norm. Is this a risk that our military should be willing to assume?

Let us take a moment to consider a few of the points that lie on the periphery, and have the potential to distract us from the fundamental problem: unequal standards.

First, I recognize that physical fitness is not synonymous with talent or combat effectiveness. But surely, fitness can rationally be recognized as an indicator of many other characteristics that correlate with talent and combat effectiveness: mental toughness, resilience, discipline, and perseverance, to name a few.
Second, common sense dictates that the military population should be representative of society, to a certain degree. If we enforce standards that are too challenging, the female population in the military could overwhelmingly decline. I say, so what? To what degree and to what expense should our military be representative of society?
Finally, the intended focus of this piece is not the accuracy of the services’ current physical fitness tests. These tests are in place because they are cost-effective and can be performed nearly anywhere with almost no equipment. And while they may not be the most precise assessments of an individual’s fitness, a rational assumption is that a generally fit person will score well on any of the military branches’ fitness tests.
Aside from the ground broken by the 1% of female servicemembers, I hope this can be a thought-provoking catalyst for a dialogue on the application of equality to the remaining 99% of female servicemembers who currently enjoy the benefits of fitness standards that are significantly lower than that of their male counterparts.

Simply put, the actual combat situations that will test the fitness of our Soldiers will not be discriminatory and neither should the policies, training, and standards that are intended to prepare us for and replicate combat environments. As a female Army officer, I have enough self-awareness to recognize that scoring a 300 according to the male Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) standards will be very difficult for me. I have come close, but have not done it yet, and I probably will not be able to do it very often. So would gender-neutral standards be more difficult for me? Of course! Would it be easier for me to compete with my male peers and advance my career operating under the female standards? Yes. But one must remember that what is convenient for the individual may not be beneficial for the organization. While in a garrison environment, one can modify conditions to cater to the different physical capabilities that the mean populations of males and females have, but unfortunately, a combat environment will not accommodate this idea.

Bottom line: Our current policies limit our ability to effectively maximize talent and combat effectiveness. Regarding performance standards, if we continue to treat females like women first, instead of Soldiers first, we will be met with similar results — our organization will continue to produce women first, instead of Soldiers first. Furthermore, discriminatory standards cause added counterproductive byproducts. First, this unequal treatment denigrates the credibility of the accomplishments of female pioneers like First Lieutenant Haver, Captain Griest, and Major Jaster, who recently graduated Army Ranger School. Second, discriminatory standards holistically undermine the gender equality movement by providing fuel for the already heated organizational inertia to grow into a fiery opposition — and rightfully so!

So where do we go from here?

First, there has been discussion that MOS requirements should drive fitness standards instead of gender, which seems to be the most viable idea to explore. MOS-specific events such as shuttle sprints with a particular type of gear, weight-lifting events, or foot marches of varying distances are fitness assessments we may see in the future. I am interested to see where this dialogue travels.

Second, while it is convenient to place the responsibility exclusively on the shoulders of female servicemembers, one must remember that this is a problem that we all own. As leaders, the onus is on us to regulate our formations and ensure that we push those around us to be the very best. Every deficiency we fail to correct and every standard we fail to enforce becomes the new norm, and we have no one to blame but ourselves. Stop the complacency. Demand excellence, regardless of gender.

Third, it is undeniably the responsibility of every female servicemember to perform some serious introspection and self-assessment. There are hard questions that I am going to have to continually ask myself as these new policies unfold. Am I measuring up? Am I close to being the lowest performer in every physical event in comparison to my male peers? Am I pushing myself to be the very best that I can be? Is my very best even enough to meet the minimum standards expected of my male peers? Do I have the self-awareness to recognize if my best performance is simply not enough?

Finally, along with the strong female pioneers who have paved the way for female servicemembers with their performance, we need that strength to bleed over into the policy side of the debate. The decision has been made. It is happening. Now, we need bold female and male leaders to influence the policy-making process so we do this thing right.

**No, I do not know the specific circumstances surrounding the photograph above. And while I do not know what those two female Marines were doing, why they do not have any gear, and why the male Marines at the front of the formation are carrying extra gear, instances similar to this are all too common and speak to the current culture and organizational resistance to female integration in combat MOSs. It appears that the female Marines in the photo were unable to carry their own gear, and passed it off on their male peers. But truthfully, what is actually happening in the photo does not matter. This photo, widely shared on social media outlets, represents the stereotype that female servicemembers do not “carry their own weight.” This is the stereotype we are up against.