A plan to make the physical requirements more difficult for aspiring female US Marines by requiring full pull-ups has been postponed indefinitely. And as it stands now, women interested in becoming lady Leathernecks must meet lower physical standards than their male counterparts. But for jobs that require brute physical strength, is it fair to give women a break? Yes, and no.
According to the Marine Corps Times, the Marines had been planning since last June to make full pull-ups necessary in order for a woman to achieve a perfect score on the Physical Fitness Test (PFT). The PFT is a test that Marines — both men and women — must pass on a semi-annual basis. It measures soldiers' ability to complete three tasks: a 3 mile run, 2 minutes during which the Marine must do as many crunches as possible, and the upper body strength test. Soldiers can earn a score of 0-100 on each of the three areas, and must earn a minimum total composite score (it varies by age) in order to meet standards.
Men and women must meet different standards in order to pass these tests. As it stands now, in order for a man to achieve a perfect score on the upper body strength portion of the PFT, he must complete 20 full pull ups, and a woman need only complete a flexed arm hang for 70 seconds. The proposed change would have still given women the option to utilize the flexed arm hang in lieu of pull ups, but flexed arm hangers would only be eligible for a maximum score of 70/100 unless they completed a pull up. One pull up would result in a score of 75 points, with five additional points awarded to women who completed each additional pull up. So, for women, a perfect score would require completing 6 full pull ups. Men, on the other hand, would still have to complete 20 pull ups in order to score 100 points. In addition, men need to run 3 miles in 18 minutes flat for a perfect score, where women have 21 minutes to do the same. Men and women are expected to perform the same number of abdominal crunches.
In many fields where strength matters, it looks like ladies get a break. In order to pass the physical standards test at most fire departments, for example, female candidates are required to carry less weight over a shorter distance than that of their male counterparts. Police department standards vary as well. Last year, a group of rejected female candidates to the Chicago Fire Department sued after failing the physical test, claiming gender discrimination when it was too difficult. Even in the Marine Corps' Combat Fitness Test (CFT), women are given more time to complete a series of battle-simulating tasks than the men.
The rationale behind different physical standards for men and women is the same logic behind the separation of the genders on the field of sport: simple biology. Fiber for fiber, female muscle mass is just as strong as male muscle mass, but men still have 40 to 50 lbs more muscle mass than women and less fat. When it comes to building brute strength, women are often at a hormonal disadvantage to men as well; we've got estrogen in spades, but male bodies produce much more muscle-building testosterone. Of course, this in no way means that every woman is physically weaker than every man or that they're incapable of amazing feats of physical strength. But generally speaking, men tend to be more prone to bar bending He-Man-ery. Which tends to translate better to strength-based achievement.
Women are already barred from the most physically intense jobs within the Marines. There's no such thing as an infantrywoman, and ladies aren't allowed to work in artillery or on aquatic tractors. Because of the elite unit's ridiculously high requirements for upper body strength and speed, women aren't even allowed to try out for some of the most elite military teams. In other words, separations already exist within the military that address physical differences between men and women. And further limiting women's involvement in the Marines — or in any strength-based job — might prove detrimental to units themselves.
Opponents of physically unequal standard for men and women in careers that essentially rely on physical strength point out that while a test can accomodate a woman, a fire does not care if you're a lady, and the weight of a falling wall will not adjust itself accordingly. And if men are overall more capable soldiers than women, then lowering standards to include ladies in more roles that rely on strength is actually doing the military a disservice by possibly putting them at a disadvantage to forces with gender blind testing. Sure, a woman should be allowed to do anything she wants — if she can meet the physical standards of the job.
And this makes quite a bit of sense. If my building were on fire and I were passed out under a collapsed beam, I don't care if the person who rescues me is a man or a woman; just get me the fuck out of there. But on the other hand, is it possible that there are traits that put women at an advantage that aren't measured by existing Physical Fitness Tests? Sure, there's no overcoming biology, but sometimes, biology (or socialization) works out to women's advantage. And that can benefit teams as a whole.
According to a 2003 report called Hiring & Retaining More Women: The Advantages to Law Enforcement Agencies, women may not possess the biceps of their male counterparts, but they make up for it in interpersonal skills.
Research conducted both in the United States and internationally clearly demonstrates that women officers rely on a style of policing that uses less physical force, are better at defusing and de-escalating potentially violent confrontations with citizens, and are less likely to become involved in problems with use of excessive force. Additionally, women officers often possess better communication skills than their male counterparts and are better able to facilitate the cooperation and trust required to implement a community policing model.
Being a Marine is not the same as being a police officer, but traits that the report says women possess — such as better communication skills, de-escalating skills, and less trigger-happiness — could translate to an advantage on the battlefield, or at least better PR. Would female Marines be as likely to pee on the corpses of slain enemy combatants? Maybe. At the very least, it's a little trickier for a lady to pee standing up.
In addition to personality traits that would enhance a police force or military unit, women's physiques may offer some advantages for combat. Our smaller size and lighter weight means we're more portable and can fit into smaller spaces. Our stretchy connective tissue means we're more flexible. And research suggests that higher levels of estrogen help ladies' muscles recover from exercise more quickly than men, and that we're uniquely suited to extreme endurance activities, like ultra-marathons or childbirth. This means less recovery time, and that ladies can endure more pain for longer. All advantages in extreme situations that can offer a complement to the brute strength advantage that biology tends to afford men.
But we don't test aspiring Marines for their ability to squeeze into a tiny space, hold an uncomfortable position for an extended period of time, or keep going for hours with minimal recovery time. The Marine PFT and CFT tests don't screen for every possible trait that could make a good soldier.
We don't need higher standards for female firefighters, Marines, or law enforcement officers. But these jobs would be well-served to measure physical attributes at which women excel in order to better understand how women contribute to the team as a whole. And that's an idea worth saluting.
Pull ups for women? Not going to happen [Marine Corps Times]