Two Cheers for Lifting the Ban on Women in Combat


Women and men are entitled to the same rights, period. Discriminating against an individual solely based on his or her sex is wrong and if you do that you are not my friend. So my initial reaction yesterday to reports that the Pentagon was lifting restrictions on women in combat was: It's about time. I was confident that I could find data that would show that women and men would perform equally well in combat, so I went looking for it. To my surprise, I could uncover very little data comparing the physical capacities of female and male recruits.

The most comprehensive analysis of the issue that I could find is a 2011 paper by social scientist William Gregor in the School of Advanced Military Studies at the US Army Command and General Staff College located at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.  Gregor's study, "Why Can't Anything Be Done? Measuring Physical Readiness of Women for Military Occupations," [PDF] looks at what data is available and finds significant differences in ability of female and male recruits to meet the military's physical performance standards.

Take, for example, Gregor's analysis of how well ROTC cadets have done on the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) that looks at about 75,000 recruits who were commissioned by the U.S. Army through ROTC between 1992 and 2009. The performance of all cadets is evaluated based on how fast they can run two miles and how many push ups they can do. Gregor shows …

.. the distribution of cadet scores on the 2-Mile Run in 2000, the Push-Up, and the distribution of cadets by weight. The difference in performance is clear. Only 2.9 per cent of the women, 23, were able to attain the male mean score. The strength comparison is somewhat worse, 1.5 per cent of the women achieved the male mean. Given the difference in stature between the cadet men and women, the difference in absolute strength is very large. [The relevant charts are on pages 20 and 21 of the study.]

Gregor then looks at a comparison of the aerobic capacity of the ROTC cadets and reports…

…the aerobic capacity achieved by women regardless of their body composition is less than the capacity of men. …there are a few, exceptional women who best the bottom 16% of men, but these rare women are four standard deviations above the female mean, fewer than 1 in a 1000. In this exceptionally fit ROTC Cadet population, considering 74,838 records, not one women achieved the male mean.

According to NPR, qualifying for combat positions will be based on gender-neutral criteria:

Will the standards be different for men and women?

At a briefing Thursday morning, Pentagon officials repeatedly stressed that there will be "gender-neutral standards" for combat positions. This could make it difficult for women to qualify in roles that specifically require upper-body strength.

For example, to work in a tank, women will have to demonstrate the ability to repeatedly load 55-pound tank shells, just as men are required to do.

Infantry troops routinely carry backpacks with 60 or 70 pounds of gear, or even more. The most common injury in Afghanistan is caused by roadside bombs. This raises the question of whether a female combat soldier would be able to carry a 200-pound male colleague who has been wounded.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman recently reported on the first two women allowed into the Marines' grueling 12-week Infantry Officer Course in Quantico, Va. Both women were in outstanding physical condition, yet both dropped out early in the training.

If both male and female soldiers are expected to meet the same criteria, then this change will be good for our military. In any case, it's high time that the Pentagon become more transparent with its training data.