Gender in Security – Inaugural Post

I’ve been wanting to make a regular practice of writing about gender issues in security. However, regular readers will know that my promises to write about a given thing rarely pan out.

So I’ve decided to start doing a recurring roundup of issues that deal with gender in security but with no claims to regularity or comprehensiveness. I know myself enough to know that promising either would make the whole thing just another source of stress and no fun at all. When other refuges have come and gone, this blog will remain the place where all that I don’t feel like doing can go directly to hell.


The UK Royal Navy announced on May 4th that it has admitted its first three women sailors on board a submarine. Another milestone for a social movement that is rapidly changing the face of military affairs:

Second Sea Lord Vice Admiral David Steel said: “Women have been serving in ships at sea with the Royal Navy for more than 20 years and integrating them into the Submarine Service completes their inclusion into all seagoing branches.”

The Royal Navy first allowed women to go to sea in 1990.

The US lifted its ban on women in submarines in 2010. While fourteen of the US Navy’s 70 submarine crews are integrated at the officer level, enlisted submarine integration is still waiting on a task force to “develop details” (PDF). Integration of future submarines is limited by the additional cost of constructing permanent female-only berthing facilities on board. This is the classic integration problem for naval forces that won’t simply live in coed circumstances.


Local Afghan police leaders met with officials in Victoria, Australia to discuss the protection of women after the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) withdraws from Afghanistan:

Najibullah Samsour, the chief of police of a part of Kabul known as District 10, said the goal was to win the support of the Australian government in combating an expected increase in violence against women after the forces withdraw. 

I’m actually a bit surprised to hear that an Afghan official would go out of his way to deal with such an issue. Hopefully their discussion was a serious one–Western reports do not bode well for the future of women’s rights in the country.

 Transgender Service

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has gone on record stating that the US military’s ban on service for transgender individuals “continually should be reviewed.” Secretary Hagel went on to state that “every qualified American who wants to serve our country should have an opportunity if they fit the qualifications and can do it.” Hagel’s point may sound obvious a cool two centuries after the Age of Enlightenment, but to hear a defense secretary embrace equality of opportunity would have been unthinkable a few short years ago.

 Women Veteran Services

Finally, Stars and Stripes reports that women veterans are under-seeking Veteran Affairs services relative to their need. This is another classic problem faced by government service providers–just because the resources are there doesn’t mean people use them or are even aware of their existence.

Good Training

Last night I was watching videos of Laura Phelps-Sweatt, the strongest woman powerlifter and one of the strongest humans in the world, training with Gracie Vanasse, and it made me want to move. Problem was that it was 11 o’clock at night, so my options were limited. I call these “girlfriend pushups”:

Watching the video, I realize that I need to focus on keeping a neutral head position so that I don’t cheat off the last couple inches.

Here’s Laura and Gracie doing box squats. Laura stays well below her competition max of 670-775 pounds, so my guess is that she’s training for explosion (with more weight on the bar than my max record in the same weight class, plus green bands for progressive resistance):

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.

More Bad Arguments Against Women in the Infantry

I want to follow up on my earlier post about bad arguments against integration of women into the infantry.

Last Thursday, William Saletan published some commentary on the female graduates of the Marine Corps Infantry Training Battalion (ITB). The jist: Now that the oh-so-skeptical among us have definitive proof that women can meet the infantry standard, they are changing their argument. “Women don’t want it” is a common ploy (proffered by none less than Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA), a former Marine who is using his military credibility to enforce sex discrimination while serving the US in one of its highest capacities).

In the comments section of Saletan’s post, I saw a few recurring themes among the remaining protestations against integration.

Logistics, Cost-Effectiveness, and the Nature of Public Institutions

One theme is that opening a second gender to the infantry would be logistically intensive and therefore cost-inefficient.

I have a couple points in response to this argument. I’d like to start with a set of propositions:

  1. Opening the infantry to women will require real but modest structural changes to a highly developed war machine that already accommodates women in most combat roles. After footing the rest of the DOD’s oh, say, $527 billion FY2014 budget request, US taxpayers will absorb this modest onetime cost without even realizing it.
  2. This leaves us with an additional operational cost that will be marginal, probably on the order of a rounding error in DOD’s $79 billion FY2014 budget request for overseas contingency operations. To the extent that “women don’t want to be in the infantry,” this recurring cost will be all the more marginal.

I have no hard cost analysis to back these up but they are falsifiable propositions. It seems likely that the DOD has conducted such analysis even if it deigns to publish the numbers.

I’m fairly confident that opponents will respond in two ways:

  1. They will contest my interpretation of the subjective terms “modest” and “marginal.”
  2. They will argue that any increase in cost is unjustifiable because gender equality is peripheral to combat effectiveness.

My counter-responses are as follows:

  1. Most reasonable people with a sense of the likely orders of magnitude will disagree with their interpretation. Unfortunately, this line of argument will remain unfalsifiable and therefore open to endless comment-section squabbling.
  2. As a public institution, the military is responsible for more than combat effectiveness. As a tool of a democratic state, the US military should be as broadly representative of the public as possible. Because the military is an instrument of government, and because the US government is charged with protecting equal rights, a military that arbitrarily discriminates against women is a military that is cost-effective at doing the wrong thing.

Shadow Standards

The second theme I’m seeing is related to point number two above. This is the claim that, even though women can meet the entry-level standard, women will be unable to meet the admittedly more challenging physical regimen of the Fleet Marine Force. Opponents conclude from this proposition that the Marine Corps would incur an unacceptable cost in “combat effectiveness” and/or lives.

I see two flaws in this claim. The first is that, if anything, combat effectiveness (which is usually ambiguously defined) will be affected at the margins. The US military will remain overwhelmingly effective within its areas of strength. It will continue to enjoy such a preponderance of combat power that no aspect of the national threat profile will be credibly affected.

The more important flaw in this claim is that it relies on a convenient misinterpretation of the Marine Corps’ responsibility to maintain combat effectiveness.

Before I elaborate, let me concede that many of the more fit infantrymen already believe the physical standards are too low. While most Marines who complete ITB can perform adequately within a wide range of variation, some infantrymen struggle greatly with one or more physical aspects of infantry service. Depending on the aspects with which they struggle, their comrades may or may not be able to pick up their slack (you can carry somebody’s gear but you can’t lend a hand to his cardiovascular system).

That said, it is not becoming of a professional institution to maintain a shadow standard for how one really needs to perform while maintaining before its democratic leadership that the official standard establishes professional competency. If the Marine Corps is to maintain its integrity, then the official standard must establish true minimum competency.

So we have a choice: Either the Marine Corps currently has a true minimum or the Marine Corps needs to raise its ITB standard with all that implies for middling recruits (the overwhelming majority of which are likely to be male) and all that implies for recruiting goals.

When I was in the infantry, I agreed that the physical standards should be raised. Now that I have a better sense of the relative ability of the US military to meet the demands of the median combat environment, I can see that the existing standards are at least reasonable for a large military drawn from a society of increasing waistlines. (Or rather, they would be if they were strictly enforced. Many Marines I knew had a habit of discreetly ignoring the standard or awarding failed Marines with a minimum passing score in the name of “looking out for our own.” But that goes back to integrity and professionalism, both of which are gender-blind concepts.)

But even if raising the standard was really necessary, nothing about the need to raise the standard is proof that half the population should be prevented from trying to meet that standard in the first place.

Injury Rates

Finally, there’s the theme that women have higher injury rates than men. In my view, this is the only logically coherent theme of the three I’ve mentioned.

However, it requires serious qualification. Women do indeed have higher injury rates than men, but numerous studies show that this is partly because women tend to start out with less physical fitness–and in particular, aerobic capacity–than men. As women reach higher levels of fitness during basic training, injury rates greatly decrease as a function of sex. In one study, sex ceased to predict injury rates at all:

In multivariate analyses, where demographics, body composition, and initial physical fitness were controlled, female gender was no longer a significant predictor of injuries (RR = 1.14, 0.48-2.72). Physical fitness, particularly aerobic fitness, remained significant.

Womens’ lower relative fitness levels are related to the fact that children are socialized to view strenuous exercise as a predominantly male-appropriate activity. Relentlessly attacking womens’ worth for military service, then, is contributing to the very problem with which one is purportedly concerned.

Similar studies on injury rates here, here, and here. Brits here. Mixed case in Finland here. Mixed case indicating that Army women have higher injury rates but lower hospitalization rates and slightly longer hospital stays here.

The existence of higher female injury rates tells us little about their overall cost to the military. Since very few women are expected to qualify for infantry service, their higher injury rates may cost the military very little. It is possible to subject this phenomenon to cost-benefit analysis, so it is premature to protest integration on this basis unless such analysis shows that integration is cost-prohibitive in the context of the $527 billion budget mentioned above.

Otherwise, it’s silly to hold torn ligament rates up as damning evidence for an institution that expects a certain proportion of its membership to be ripped apart by various forms of ordinance in the performance of their duty. The summer season is also a predictor of injury rates–perhaps it is our duty only to train Marines during the other three seasons? Cigarette smoking is another predictor. Should smokers be banned?

Merit is Merit

In the end, Saletan is right. A merit-based system commensurate with our national values implies equal access to the infantry. Some people will claw for any opposition to integration they can think of. Looking at the grand sweep of history, it’s pretty clear to me that they are eventually going to be disappointed. At some point we have done our due diligence and it is on opponents to seek whambulance treatment until they can handle reality.

Bad Arguments Against Women in the Infantry: “They Don’t Want It”

In an NPR segment on the three female graduates of the US Marine Corps’ Infantry Training Battalion, Staff Sergeant Billy Shinault pulls out a familiar canard:

Shinault doubts many women will even want this kind of life: sleeping in the dirt for weeks, patrolling, fighting.

“I’ve talked to [female infantry instructor] Staff Sgt. Towns and a couple others, and they’re content where they’re at in their job field,” he said. “I’ve yet to meet one [woman who] … wanted to be in the infantry.”

Towns was standing nearby. She shot him a look that said “he doesn’t speak for me.”

Normally, the prevailing logic in the military, especially in the infantry, is “get a straw and suck it up.” There is no assumption that individual whims are relevant to military policy. But as women approach eligibility for the infantry, all of a sudden the tables are turned.

In this debate, the permutations of “there is not a significant number of women who want to be in the infantry” are a common red herring and inverted form of argumentum ad numerum.* But that’s exactly how they should be understood because equal rights do not have popular threshold requirements for eligibility.

If any woman ever wants to try out for the infantry, she should have the opportunity to submit to an objective standard. That is our national obligation under the principle of equality before the law. And it’s distressingly ignorant of human diversity to believe that no woman would ever take the opportunity.

*Just for fun, check out the example given to illustrate dicto simpliciter.

Here’s Some Video of the Female Marines in Infantry Training

Stars and Stripes reposted a Marine Corps video featuring some of the female Marines in infantry training at Camp Geiger. Some folks are not going to believe their eyes.

Four Female Marines Set to Graduate From Infantry Training Battalion

Business Insider snags an Instagram pic of the first four women Marines to complete the requirements of the Infantry Training Battalion:

I know there must be some lesson here about how social media changes our view of world events, but I’m not sure what that is.

Anyway, congratulations to them and may the naysayers choke on some foot tonight.

This Thursday the Marines will graduate from my alma mater, the School of Infantry in Camp Geiger, North Carolina.

UPDATE: CNN reports that one of the four women recently incurred an injury that precludes her completion of the final Combat Fitness Test required to graduate. The final CFT is considered a formality because Marines are required to pass an initial CFT upon entering the Infantry Training Battalion. The fourth Marine will be allowed to graduate after she heals and completes the final CFT.

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