Opening combat to women raises questions about fitness standards

Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced an end to the ban on women in combat positions that had been in place since 1994.  While a lot of people are supportive of the decision, more than a few have spoken up to express concerns, such as that women in combat will affect morale or that their presence will inhibit the men from dealing with things like hygiene and pooping in ways that are necessary when on the front lines.  (Yes, this was the topic of an actual op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.)  I don’t really want to talk about this, though, mainly because I have no freaking clue what it’s like to fight in a war.  There are women who have actually served in wars who are writing and talking about these things, and so I defer to their expertise in this matter.

What I want to talk about is the controversy surrounding the differences in physical fitness standards that come up every time the question of women in the military surfaces in the public discourse.  The various branches of the military have physical fitness tests that are scaled and scored according to gender and age, and for the most part, the standards that need to be reached by the women are much lower than the standards for the men.  (The only exception seems to be sit-ups under the older tests.)  A lot of the people who are against women in combat make the point that if they are going to be out in the middle of a mission, they want to know that they can count on everyone who is part of the team to pull their weight, because if they cannot, they put the entire group at risk.  A totally legitimate concern, if you ask me.

The proponents of gender-scaled fitness standards point to the fact that women, on average, tend to be shorter than the average man.  We tend to have less upper-body strength.  Our hormonal cocktail doesn’t let us put on the kind of muscle men do.  It’s aggravating as hell but it’s how things are.  By reducing the standards for women, you open the doors to allow more women to serve.  I get this as well.

I was curious to know more about the differing standards, so I looked up the ones used for the the old Army Physical Fitness Test and was rather surprised by the difference between the passing grade for men as compared to women.  Take the two-mile run.  A woman who is my age (33) has to run two miles in 21:42, while a man my age would have to run it in 17:42.  That’s a gap of four minutes, or two minutes per mile, on a fitness test that isn’t even all that dependent on muscle mass.  I would have to do 15 push-ups, while my male counterpart would have to do 36.  Again, this is my totally non-military, no-clue-at-all perspective but…don’t those standards seem kind of far apart?

I guess my first instinct is to ask if it’s really necessary to have such a big difference between the physical performance required of men and women.  I understand why it was put in place, but I can’t help but think that with proper training and nutrition, many women would be able to perform at a higher standard of physical fitness.

And it looks like I’m not the only one who thinks this, as the U.S. Marine Corps recently started changing the requirements for women:

Additionally, men have been required to do pull-ups while women, viewed institutionally as having less inherent upper-body strength, have been required to perform what’s called the flexed-arm hang, hoisting themselves over the pull-up bar and holding the position for up to 70 seconds. Marines are rated based on their overall performance on each section of the test, with 300 making a perfect score.

During the coming year, as the service adjusts to the change, female Marines will have the option of doing pull-ups or the flexed-arm hang during their PFT, according to Amos’ message. But come 2014, women will be required to do at least three pull-ups to pass the PFT, with eight needed for a perfect score on that portion of the test.

The change will also extend to fitness plans, which will now be required to include specific pull-up training (which trainers say will increase the likelihood that women will be able to actually do pull-ups, instead of vague all-around fitness plans).  Women may not have the ability to be as strong and as fast as the strongest men, but give us quality training, good food and a culture that prizes physical strength in women instead of treats it like some kind of scourge to be stamped out, and I bet most of us would be a lot stronger and a lot faster than we are.

I recognize that this is oversimplified, and that there are a lot of other things at play when it comes to evaluating the standards of fitness used in the military, such as the fact that it plays a big role in career advancement.  I also want to reiterate that I know very, very little about this, and I am open to hearing why I am wrong. But what I don’t really want to hear is why women should not be allowed in the military and I don’t want to hear dumb sexist shit. If you post a joke about the women’s place in the military being in the mess kitchen, I will delete that shit before your finger even clicks “Submit.”

27 responses to “Opening combat to women raises questions about fitness standards

  1. I was in a Police academy which required women to do pull-ups. In 6 months I went from none to 6. For me even when I had the 0 it didn’t necessarily reflect my upper body strength in total, I could still climb a wall when I had 0 pull-ups. The difference they insisted that we train to do pull-ups so I got better.

  2. I like your idea that if the standards for women are raised, perhaps the women will rise to meet them. Hell, women complete marathons, ironman. Many of them can easily kick my ass in a race. I think people perform to expectations. If a child is told a C in school is great, then they will get Cs. If they are told they can get an A if they try, then many will shoot for an A!

  3. I was in the military (reservist in Canada) for awhile, and no I could not keep up to the men during a run, their legs are longer than mine. But I out-did many of them when it came to chin-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, dips, and hand-to-hand combat. I am all for EQUAL rights (not over imposed women’s rights) and I believe that ‘yes there are somethings that men are more naturally built to do’ and women too. But it is not our sex that determines this, its hormones, body composition, mental and social experiences, and other things that defines a person as who they are. I have always looked and lower physical requirements in this way “if I am a 250lb person trapped in a burning building with broken legs whoever is the fist fire fighter to find me should be able to assist me, if that person is unable to lift/carry me because their physical requirement was only 220lb instead of 280lb I would not be happy” I am a woman, and I try to be realistic, I am capable of a lot when the opportunity is there, but there are things I will never do that others are born for.

    • I have longer legs than Shalane Flannigan and she crushes me at any running distance 🙂 I don’t buy the longer leg theory. I think I a little sensitive to that theory because I am 6’2″ and all my couch potato friends say i can run good because my legs are longer than theirs. Not because I run 20-30 miles a week, eat right, run 5 miles and arrive at work before them. No, its my longer legs.

      • I didn’t mean the longer leg thing in that way, of course you can run better than your friends if you practise and they don’t. What I mean is physics/math related: the longer the legs the more distance each stride covers making it less ‘work’ required to run the same distance as a person with shorter legs. When I have to run with another person and keep “left, right, left, right” together with that person if their legs are longer than mine they will run ‘faster’ than me.
        I think in your case your friends just don’t want to and they use the longer legs as an excuse.

    • If I am a 250lb person trapped in a burning building with broken legs, whoever is the first fire fighter to find me should know better than to lift me instead of dragging me because I don’t want to asphyxiate just so they can feel strong, dear God.

  4. We were talking about this at work today (mostly female office), and we all agreed (males as well) that maybe the standards should just be flat out physical benchmarks, regardless of gender? Again, no military experience here, but it seems like if an assignment calls for a certain level of physicality, both men and women should be able to meet that standard in order to be fit for that assignment.

    • I don’t think it is possible to create a standard benchmark to say, you must be able to life “X” or run at Y pace to qualify. The world isn’t like that. These standards probably just exist to filter our the riff-raff. You can’t let anyone join for sure. You don’t want a 400lb guy that can’t run to his mailbox. But, you don’t need him to run a marathon either. Its somewhere in between and finding that spot is the trick.

  5. Good piece Caitlin. I agree with you that the standards seem very far apart. I’m not a runner ( i will defer to you on that one) but I can do my pushups and 15 sounds like an average score for a presidential fitness test, not something I would expect for the military. I have one word for those men who think that the girls can’t hang with the boys – CROSSFIT. Those girls seem like they can do pull-ups until the cows come home. Sport/fitness/physical activity remains one of the few domains where men and women are measured differently. I would like to see it become less divided. After all, biological studies have shown that there is more variance among genders than between them.

  6. My cousin joined the military a few years ago and when she took the physical strength part she surpassed the men’s standards. What surprises me most about the physical fitness test is the women’s time for the two mile run. I think most people if they can run two miles, they could run it in that time (there are some outliers). However with the male time, it is a little bit more diffcult, but nothing crazy. Why wouldn’t you want both genders in job with such important stakes do a little better than average?

  7. I agree with Liz. Doing tasks that any marine is required to do will require a certain fitness level. Everyone should have to be able to meet that fitness level, regardless of their gender. It may be easier for men to reach that standard because of their physiology, but if women are fit enough, then they deserve to be included. I’m glad they’re changing the rules 🙂

  8. I just want to say, for the record, fuck pullups. I have been able to do one in my life, at age 11, and I’m seriously ok with never doing one again.

  9. It is helpful to look at how other similar cultures have faced this issue, oh like Canada, for instance:

    “We did not lower standards,” (Colonel Robinson) said. “We put appropriate standards on every job in the armed forces. It had nothing to do with gender. A lot of men can’t meet the standards either.”

    I believe the Israeli Defense Forces also have always included both women and men in their mandatory service. Time to start benchmarking instead of introducing the same old arguments against integration (race, sexual orientation, now gender)?

  10. A physical requirement is a physical requirement. If a job involves lifting 50 lb boxes, then the person hired needs to be someone who can do that. It makes no sense to hire someone who can only lift 30lbs and give them the 50 lb box lifting job. That person is going to wind up hurting themselves trying to do that job.

    This is what you do if you make physical standards different on gender lines.

    So, if the physical standards are higher for men than women, they have either pushed the standards for men higher than they actually need to be or they are taking on women who are immediately at a disadvantage to do the job.

    As a woman, if I wanted to join the military, I’d be very nervous to find that I did not have to be able to run as fast as, or lift as much as the men because presumably the standards the men have to meet are necessary to do the job.

    I’d feel like I was being set up to be dead weight and to wind up killed.

    Maybe I’m biased because I’m Canadian, but I’m with Canada on this one. The standards go with the job, not with the applicant.

  11. As a woman in the Navy, I can attest that the current female fitness standards are truly too low in general, before even beginning the discussion of women in combat. I agree they should be scaled slightly for age and gender, but by the current standards, the gap is enormous.

    That said, the PRT/PFA/PFT is designed to be a baseline for general fitness. Not everyone in the military is in a physically demanding combat role. I sit behind a computer for 8 hours a day, why should I be required to do pull ups?

    Some jobs or assignments do have additional fitness qualifications–a minimum PRT score, plus ability to complete a specific task, like climbing a Jacob’s ladder for VBSS, combat training for Seabees and security forces, and many jobs require an advanced swim qualification. In those cases, they are not scaled by gender. Some jobs also require a higher level fitness test that includes the standard run, sit ups, and pushups plus pull ups and a swim. I don’t know if that test is scaled. There is an attempt to make fitness requirements relevant and applicable to the job–at least that’s how the Navy does it, but I can’t speak for every branch or every program.

  12. Also never fought a war and have no business giving my opinion, but hell to the yes, the standards should be identical. Any woman who plans to engage in combat as a career should sure as shit be able to run two miles under 19 minutes and do 15 pushups. Minimum!! Goodness, most of my women friends can do these things and we sit at a desk for a living.

  13. The point of the fitness tests is just that- fitness. Being able to do a certain amount of push-ups and run a whatever minute mile doesn’t really translate well to whether a person can carry a heavy pack or not. It’s really not that cut and dried like 70 pushups in two minutes = ability to carry 75 lb pack + additional gear. Also, the tests are not only shaded by gender but by age as well and I don’t hear anyone crying out that a 40 year old man should have to meet the 21 year old man standards.

    And, p.s., I not only passed the female standards for every PT test I took in the army but would’ve passed if graded against the male standard as well.

  14. I’ve heard a lot about this issue lately and it’s interesting that none of the other articles have noted that the standards are apparently different for AGE as well! People have been posting everywhere that it should be about the job, they don’t want a less-than-qualified woman out there (the obvious and offensive assumption is that all the women will be weaklings) but nobody has pointed out there is already variation in who can qualify – older men apparently don’t have to meet the same standards as younger ones?

    If a particular job requires some specific ability, THAT ability should be graded, separately from an overall PT standard, and only those who meet it get to do the job.

    As for the PT standards, I must say I’m a bit astonished at how low they seem to be, especially the women’s running. 2 miles at an almost 11 minute pace is enough to pass? Heck, I would probably make the women’s standard faster than the men’s is.

    • I think the differing age standard is also a really good question. If it was really about making sure everyone met the same standard, then that would come up more often than it has been.

    • “If a particular job requires some specific ability, THAT ability should be graded, separately from an overall PT standard, and only those who meet it get to do the job.”

      That’s the way it is. The baseline fitness test is just for regular entry and retention into the organization–it’s bottom line standards. If there’s a job that requires more, there’s a test that requires more. In the Navy, If you want to be on the VBSS team, either you get up the ladder or you don’t. You get weapons qualifications or you don’t. It doesn’t matter what your age, gender, or PRT score is (actually it does a little–you have to have a high score, not just pass with a minimum). So the 30 year old female (my category) who’s running her 1.5 in 16 minutes and doing 13 push ups is sitting in an office somewhere, not boarding pirate ships. To even be eligible to train for VBSS I’d have to do 35 push ups, 75 sit ups, and run in 13:30. And then I’d still have to get up the ladder.

      Again, I’m using the Navy as an example, because that’s my experience, but it’s similar elsewhere. You don’t get a job that requires advanced fitness if you’re passing the test at the bare minimum. Likewise, I’m sitting behind a computer writing weather forecasts, so there’s no need for me to be climbing ladders and shooting rifles. We train for the jobs we have.

  15. I was active army for 4 years, now reserves, and in all that time I never knew any female who couldn’t do the male minimum on pushups, and only a few more who would struggle with the run than men did. The standards are ridiculously low for women. I believe this came about because when women were first integrate those who made the rules and advised had a very low opinion of womens’ abilities. Yes, the best woman is not as strong as the best man, but even males in infantry are not really in that great shape. They’re not supermen like people seem to think, they’re barely above average.

  16. The standards in the Marine Corps—with respect to inclusion for women—have continually changed. The constant that I saw in 22 years in the Corps was that every time the standard for women was raised, most met it. Just as with the men that weren’t up to standard, the women that couldn’t hack it got out, were forced out, or limped along to retirement, rightfully being treated like the non-hackers they were. So the decision to have women perform pull ups will only be good for women Marines in the long run. That said, the political class in the Corps are still making the same mistakes as they always have by gender norming (and continuing to age norm) the test. To get a perfect score on the pull ups portion of the Marine PFT men must perform 20 pull ups (something not accomplished by most males), women must perform 8. That means every pull ups for men is worth 5 points, and every pull for women is worth 12 points. I doubt they’ll see such norming on the battlefield (or anywhere in life). Until service chiefs have the courage to wiped away gender and age norming—without lowering the standard—any gains for women in an area that is renown for its need for strength and endurance will be suspect, be that fair or not. Of course lets not kid ourselves the entire decision is political and has nothing at all to do with readiness or breaking glass ceilings. The proof of this is easy to see. If it was about readiness and silencing the naysayers about women in the military (something that should be done once and for all) the first thing Sec. Panetta would’ve done was mandate the removal of gender/age norming on Physical Fitness Testing for each of the military branches. The second logical step of course would’ve been to immediately have all females 18-25 sign up for selective service with the same penalties (no finaid from the gov’t) imposed on the noncompliant. Then, after a year for transition, as was done in the Corps, the combat exclusion ban could’ve been lifted, free of political tainting. With the same standards applied to all, the men that grouse will be shown as the boneheads they are and summarily ignored. And military women would finally be celebrated for the equal members they’ve always been, but were, due to policy restricted from being.

  17. This thread is old. But I have to leave my two cents. Under “premium” conditions, a woman can achieve great physical fitness. The proper, rest, vitamins etc. Those luxuries will not be present on the battlefield. A man, due to something called testosterone, will not lose strength – AS FAST. Ask any women what it takes for women to beat these barriers vs men. When you haven’t slept for days, when you are under extreme emotional stress(you know when your buddy is out there crying for help and you MUST hold your position and not assist). Yes these take their toll on men, but not in the same way as women. I am against everyone fighting. Rather than demand our leaders stop using our bravest and brightest as cannon fodder(to fight wars for corporations), we gave them opposite sex too. Our true strength will not be measured in sit ups, push ups etc until we can grow a pair and push back against those who are undermining our whole way of life.

    • “I am against everyone fighting. Rather than demand our leaders stop using our bravest and brightest as cannon fodder(to fight wars for corporations), we gave them opposite sex too. Our true strength will not be measured in sit ups, push ups etc until we can grow a pair and push back against those who are undermining our whole way of life.”

      I love this so much, and I totally, totally agree.

  18. Just to be honest, the standards should be completely equal. Everyone who desires to be in the military should meet the same standards to make sure that when it comes time to fight, everyone can watch each other’s back. Thus may limit the number of women that are physically able to enter the military and many that don’t merged the current male standard (higher) would either train to meet the standard or be released for failure to conform. It’s a fighting force for the US not a private club that bouncers bend the rules for the opposite sex. I mean there are plenty of men who don’t meet the standard and they can’t come in or stay in the military.

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