Does It Really Matter If Women Soldiers Can't Do Pull-Ups?

Starting in 2016, women will be able to serve in any combat role in the United States' armed forces.
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Starting in 2016, women will be able to serve in any combat role in the United States' armed forces.
Female Marine recruits prepare to fire on the rifle range during boot camp February 25, 2013, at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Female Marine recruits prepare to fire on the rifle range during boot camp February 25, 2013, at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In 1976, three years into her Army career, my mom took her first physical fitness test at the Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Colorado. While the men stationed alongside her ran two miles, "they would not allow us to run," she says with faded indignation. "We had to jog 600 paces standing in place, while the men got to go run around the track." (My dad, on the other hand, remembers his first physical fitness test in the Army in the 1950s as being a slightly grueling endeavor—a long run, some pull-ups, squat jumps, and "about a million" sit-ups.) By the time I took my first fitness test as an ROTC cadet in 2009, the only difference between men and women was the minimum requirements to pass. I ran, did push-ups, and cranked out sit-ups alongside the boys, albeit at a slightly slower pace and lower frequency than many of the men in my company. My mom retired in 2010, leaving behind a very different Army than the one she joined. My family's history with the Army's fitness tests is a microcosm of the military's slow march toward gender equality.

Women have served in and alongside the United States' armed forces since our nation's earliest skirmishes. Despite that, integrating women into the military has been a long, drawn out process. Political pressure and a 1994 Department of Defense policy to keep women out of ground combat positions funneled women instead into combat support roles, like transportation and military police. But that hasn't kept women out of combat; hundreds of thousands of women have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years, where—from a gender perspective—the battle front lines are largely blurred.

"They were using an inappropriate standard to evaluate women's ability to do the job."

Finally, it seems policy is catching up to real world combat. Fueled by White House support for expanding military opportunities for women, the Pentagon announced Thursday that it would be lifting the gender restrictions for combat placements. The decision is a big win for women with high ambitions for their military careers, who have long claimed that the blanket ban on combat positions impeded their ability to rise through the ranks to top military jobs. The challenge for military leaders now will be to integrate women in these roles without sacrificing the organizations' ability to successfully carry out combat missions, which will largely be decided by whether women in the armed forces can meet the job-specific physical tests that the military's elite combat units require.

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The fitness standards for women in the military have historically been lenient. A recent review of Army readiness training reveals that, in the 1950s, the Physical Training—Women's Army Corps guide—essentially a pamphlet of exercises to improve conditioning—was painfully patronizing, focusing on personal and social wellness instead of strength and combat readiness. The guide called survival swimming "one of the finest means of developing grace and coordination." There was no fitness test, and according to the review author Whitefield B. East, the exercises were "generally devoid of any significant exercise intensity or rigor."

Today, the minimum standards for women across military branches are much more rigorous, but they remain gender-specific. To pass a basic fitness test in the Army, a 22-year-old male (the standards vary by age) has 17 minutes and 30 seconds to run two miles in order to pass; a female of the same age gets 20 minutes and 36 seconds to run the same distance. In other words, a male who finishes in 17:30 will receive the same score as a female who finishes in 20:36. And those differences are based on the Army's assessment of actual physiological differences between the sexes. "The scoring tables differ under the principle that a women who is able to run 2 miles in 17:30 is, on average, more physically fit (in terms of muscular strength and endurance, and cardiovascular capacity) than a man of the same age who is able to complete the run in the same time," Kristy N. Kamarck wrote in a 2015 Congressional Research Service report.

These standards may be fair for a basic entrance exam, but certain military positions, including ground combat positions, demand more specific abilities and feats of strength. This is why certain occupations in the armed forces have unique physical requirements. These tests are meant to measure not just physical fitness, but a soldier's ability to meet specific job requirements that aren't always easy (or cheap) to test; they serve as a proxy for a soldier's ability to, say, rappel out of a helicopter, or carry a wounded comrade to safety.

The Marine Corps, for example, has always required that its male recruits successfully perform at least three pull-ups. Women, on the other hand, had traditionally been required to perform at least 15 seconds of flexed arm hangs. That changed in 2013, when the Marine Corps' announced that, the following year, women recruits' flexed arm hang requirement would be replaced with pull-ups; 55 percent of women failed the new test. As a result, in December of 2013, just before the new policy was to go into effect, the corps backtracked on its new requirement, reverting back to the flexed arm hang.

These are valuable and necessary tests, but they are also subject to abuse. The question is, are pull-ups a fair proxy for combat requirements? For some time, the military used these requirements to unfairly weed out women. A personal anecdote, if you will: In the early 1980s, when my mom was stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, she was paid a visit by female representatives from the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. The group of three or so women came to discuss the possibility of opening up more positions in the Army to women. As an early version of one of these job-specific tests, the representative had my badass, future-Major General mother and her female colleagues attempt to lift and move massive spools of telephone wire. They couldn't do it. Unfortunately, this was a requirement for the communications branch jobs. One of the representatives let slip to my mom that the men couldn't lift them either, she says. "The implication was that they were using it as an inappropriate standard to evaluate women's ability to do the job."

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In years since that spool incident, the Pentagon has reviewed job-specific physical requirements to see if they actually correlate with the positions' demands. In the case of pull-ups, there doesn't seem to be much correlation; Marine officers told NPR that "they delayed the pull-up requirement to avoid losing not only recruits but also current female Marines who can't pass the test." But for the physical requirements that indeed are a fair approximation of necessary combat abilities, the only way to ensure gender equality in the military without compromising readiness is to hold women to the same standards as men.

Female fitness tests are a classic case of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Long thought of as the weaker sex, the military asked little of its female soldiers for decades, and so females in the military trained to those expectations. "People train to what they're tested on," Captain Ann G. Fox, a Marine Reserve officer, told the New York Times in 2013. In a 2014 op-ed in the Washington Post, Sage Santangelo, a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, wrote:

Yes, men have biological advantages in tests of upper-body strength. But women can do pull-ups if given enough time to build that strength. (I did 16 in my last physical fitness test, and I have no illusions that I'm the most qualified female Marine.) Recognizing biologically based advantages and disadvantages and developing training programs that work to balance them are key.

This summer, two women completed the Army's elite (read: punishing) Ranger School, suggesting that women can meet the same standards as men. And now, with roughly 220,000 new jobs opening to females, women in the military will have plenty of new chances to prove it. 

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