female soldier

Women in Combat Duty

I heard this story on NPR and had flashbacks to a similar debate we had decades ago with firefighters. And as with that debate, it frustrated me into a lather just as much now as it did then.

“Some people look at it as a civil rights issue,” says Dober. “I will tell you emphatically and to my grave that it’s not a civil rights issue. It’s a national security issue.”

Actually, it’s both.

My Take

Here are the basics of the issue. Women want to serve in the Marine Corps in battlefield units on the front lines. Some people are concerned that the physical requirements of those positions are beyond the capability of many women. In many jobs, it might be OK to have a few people who can’t handle the physical requirements. We saw that just last month in the UPS case where a pregnant female employee’s coworkers were happy to help her out when she needed it. But on the front lines, that is not feasible. Even one person can make or break the success of the mission and the life or death of the marines.

Let’s say that these studies are valid and 30% of women don’t have the physical capability to do the job of a front line marine. It is also true that 10% of men don’t. It is higher for women because the strength distributions are not the same. But the distributions are also very wide, so there are many women who are stronger than many men. This is an amusing way to look at it.

Here is the fundamental mistake that the skeptics are making – the same fundamental mistake that the skeptics about female firefighters made. We can use gender as a predictor for ability to do the job. That would remove the 30% from consideration. But it would let in the 10% of men who also don’t have the physical capability. And it would unfairly prevent the 70% of women who are capable from serving. In a volunteer Marine Corps that works hard to recruit, this is big and costly loss.

On the other hand, we can require volunteers of any gender to go through the test. If they pass they are in. If they fail, they are out. This allows the 70% of women and the 90% of men to get through. At least to the point where they can start basic training – no guarantees they can pass that too. And the 30% of women and 10% of men who don’t have the strength will learn right away and can pursue a different position in the Corps or something else. And also importantly, we wouldn’t be misusing gender as a predictor and as a source of discrimination.

There are all kinds of statistics that were created for just this question. They look at the cost/benefit of acceptance testing given the costs of false alarms (letting unqualified people serve in the role) and misses (the cost of denying a perfectly qualified person from serving) compared to the benefits of hits (letting qualified people serve).

Any test can be plugged into the standard equation and we can use the test with the best results. Note – the best predictor is NOT gender. I can’t vouch for the validity of the test used in this study, but my experience in those firefighting debates gives me extreme confidence that a strength test will be better than gender. Not because of equal rights or my strong ethical positions. It is just practical.

PS – if you are interested, this domain (military recruiting and strength testing) requires face validity, ecological validity, and predictive validity among other statistical criteria.

Your Turn

Anyone out there involved in the development of these tests? I hope they had a human factors practitioner involved, but I guess you never know. We had a few in the firefighting test development, but they were not always listened to on top of the political caterwauling. If you were, please chime in. Or if you have some opinions or ideas on the subject, we would love to hear them.

Image Credit: Ashley Gonzalez

One thought on “Women in Combat Duty”

  1. Anecdotal, but here goes:
    My dad was career military. Some formative years on Parris Island, a Recruit Training Depot – so I had USMC drill instructors (DI’s) for phys ed, Boy Scout leaders, coaches, parents of friends. Girls my age often exceeded boys in physical abilities. I remember one 15-year-old, Sissy Burdick, being used as an “object lesson” in the value of judo as an equalizer. She kicked butt on a couple of DI’s in front of a battalion of recruits.
    Net/Net: It’s politics.

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