Occupational Fitness Standards Are More Than a Good Idea For the Military

Last year, the Marine Corps introduced a policy requiring female Marines to pass the version of its physical fitness test (PFT) currently used for males. The change was supposed to take effect this month. However, 55% of female Marine recruits in the first boot camp class to graduate under the new policy failed to meet the male standard of three pullups. In response, the Marine Corps delayed the three pullup requirement for female Marines.

In “Lowering Standards for Female Marines Is Not Gender Equality,” Brian Van Reet argues that the Marine Corps should replace its generic physical standard with occupation-specific standards:

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?

I have a couple preliminary responses.

The first is to the way the essay’s headline frames the policy debate. Female physical fitness standards are not being lowered; they are being kept at their current gender-biased level. The Marine Corps’ stated intention is to raise the standard by requiring female Marines to meet the current male standard at an indeterminate future point. Van Reet’s doesn’t devote much of his essay to the supposed lowering of the standard, so I suspect the headline and byline were an editorial clickbaiting decision.

The second is that occupation-specific standards are more than just a good idea–they are already policy. When the Secretary of Defense lifted the 1994 Combat Exclusion Policy last year, he stipulated that the armed services are required to examine the physical requirements of each military occupation and create gender-neutral standards specific to each:

Validating occupational performance standards, both physical and mental, for all military occupational specialties (MOS), specifically those that remain closed to women. Eligibility for training and development within designated occupational fields should consist of qualitative and quantifiable standards reflecting the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary for each occupation. For occupational specialties open to women, the occupational performance standards must be gender-neutral as required by Public Law 103-160, Section 542 (1993).

I don’t point this out as a knock on Van Reet. I am merely trying to show that we tend to give the services (in this case, the Marine Corps) a lot of benefit of the doubt in their good-faith implementation of national policy. I’ll have more to say about this later but for now, the Marine Corps’ insistence on maintaining the male-centric three pullup standard for all Marines doesn’t strike me as the result of a very introspective look at its occupational requirements.

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