01.07.145:45 AM ET

Lowering Standards for Female Marines Is Not Gender Equality

The Marines are dropping a fitness test meant to level the playing field for women because more than half of female Marines have failed it. But the move won’t lead to equality.

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).

Under a nuanced physical fitness regime like this one, a male or female finance clerk, for example, could pass the PT test with a flexed-arm hang, whereas a tank mechanic, who might have to lift heavy steel parts as part of her regular duties, would have to perform pull-ups, a higher physical standard for the more physically demanding job.  

This kind of job-specific system is already in place to match recruits with a suitable MOS, according to their mental abilities. The most mentally demanding jobs are only open to those recruits who score well on a standardized intelligence test. Similarly, fitness tests should be written to specific outcomes as opposed to specific genders. In the end, a job-specific fitness regime would simply codify what everyone in the military already knows: the average infantry troop is way more physically fit than the average satellite repair technician. So why not write a separate physical fitness standard for each?

Inevitably, this approach would lead to fewer women in the most physically demanding roles, but it would ensure that the women who did serve there had unquestionably earned the right, meeting the same requirements as their male peers. If the object of the current push for gender integration from Congress and the Pentagon is to ensure equal opportunity, that no woman is denied the right to serve just because of her gender, there should be no problem in accepting the fact that fewer women than men will be able to qualify for certain intensive assignments. It bears saying that the vast majority of men are not cut out to be commandos, either.

Physical tests are not only important for certifying that performance standards are met, that a medic is sufficiently fit to carry a casualty on a litter, they are also integral to the military’s system of promotion. The system conceives of itself as a meritocracy, and more than most institutions, actually comes close to being one. Within this context, however, maintaining separate but equal fitness standards for women is not only inconsistent, it undermines the core value of fairness. In a right-minded meritocracy, we all go to the same schools, we stand in the same ranks, and we do the same number of pull-ups. This does not mean equality has been achieved, but it is how we point to equality’s importance.

The military already understands how significant the mere perception of equality is. To maintain good discipline and order, everyone must believe he or she has the same chance to succeed as everyone else—that the same rules apply. That’s why each recruit who arrives at basic training gets the same haircut and is made to wear the same uniform. Recruits are told that they are equally despicable, there is nothing unique about them, and the only color Uncle Sam sees is green. At present, the military’s enforced equality does not extend to women in several key respects, but it appears change is coming. Drafting sex-blind fitness standards would be one surefire way to speed it along.