Written by Ellen L. Haring
Last month the Marine Corps began prepping the battlefield for their request for an exception to policy to keep women out of infantry occupations and units. On 10 September, the Marines released a 4-pague summary outlining findings from their gender integrated experimental task force which provided data that, not surprisingly, supports their long held belief that women will negatively impact combat effectiveness. This report followed closely on the heels of retired Marine Corps General Gregory Newbold’s essay detailing how women will negatively impact fighting units. Next came the announcement that the Marines would recommend that women be barred from some combat jobs.
I have been predicting this announcement for more than a year. The Marine Corps’ sole focus has been to develop some kind of quantifiable data that would justify a request for an exception to policy. Their efforts began early in 2012 and followed a circuitous route to the recently released report. Following is a summary of their complicated journey to develop the data.
Their journey began by doing research on a set of combat proxy tests that would be used to screen for combat fitness. The proxy tests, 6 largely upper body, strength based tests, were used to evaluate the performance of 409 male and 379 female Marines. Although the link between these 6 events and the “knowledge, skills and abilities needed” for various combat jobs is not clear the research yielded some interesting results. In the “good performers” category 66% were male Marines while 34% were female Marines. In the highest performing category 92% were male while 8% were female. Clearly a percentage of female Marines met combat proxy test standards. However, the Marine Corps abandoned the use of proxy tests to screen for combat fitness.
Instead they pursued other research efforts. The first, which began in 2012, is the highly publicized research at the infantry officer course (IOC). They invited women officers, on a voluntary and trial basis, to attempt to complete the IOC. While they sought to evaluate 92 volunteers over three years they were not able to recruit anywhere near that number. Critics cite a lack of incentive for women officers to volunteer coupled with early practices that denied women the opportunity to reattempt the course as many of their male peers were allowed to do. The Marines subsequently changed that policy and last year they offered the trial to a wider pool of women Marines, inviting more senior women to attend the course. Despite their efforts only 29 women attempted the course but none of them graduated. Last spring the Marines closed the door on that research.
In late 2013, the Marines decided to expand the initial entry infantry training research to enlisted women. Similarly, they invited enlisted women to volunteer for the enlisted infantry course. They had better success with enlisted women. Out of 401 volunteers 144 graduated. When enlisted women began graduating from the infantry course the Marines decided that perhaps this course was not a good screening test to determine if women could perform in infantry units. Instead, they said that collective tasks that Marines perform out in the fleet are harder and would provide a truer litmus test of women’s ground combat potential.
Last fall they launched a much more ambitious and very expensive research project, the Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force, which was designed to see how women would perform at collective tasks in combat units. However, they found that many collective task standards were not quantifiably established; they were largely subjective in nature. Consequently, the research effort was supposed to not just to see how women perform but to quantify unit level collective tasks. At the same time that they were quantifying standards they were also comparing the performance of all male teams with teams that included varying levels of newly trained women volunteers.
This research design raised important questions about the relevance and validity of any research findings. First, how can you quantify collective tasks at the same time that you’re evaluating women’s performance against those tasks? Second, unless the teams are composed of the same percentages of newly trained men and women then comparing teams that have newly trained women against teams of male Marines who have held their occupations for any length of time is falsely comparing the performance of a green unit to that of a seasoned unit. It’s like pitting an all-star team against a farm team and then comparing their performance.
Not surprisingly, in the Marine Corps study the farm teams didn’t fare as well as the all-stars. According to newly released data from the Marine Corps the all-male, all-star teams “demonstrated higher performance levels on 69% of the tasks evaluated.” What the study doesn’t say is whether or not the farm teams, the mixed gender, newly trained teams, met basic performance standards. If the farm teams met basic performance standards than they meet combat deployment criteria and there should be no negative impact to combat effectiveness.
When the Secretary of Defense eliminated the combat exclusion policy in 2013 he told the Services to develop valid, gender free, occupationally driven performance standards that accurately reflect the “knowledge, skills and abilities” needed for a particular job and against which individuals were to be evaluated. Furthermore, he said gender neutral standards must be set by September 2015. The Marines still haven’t established gender neutral standards against which individuals will be evaluated. Instead, the Marines have deliberately undertaken a subversive course of action that would allow them to not comply with the directive and that fundamentally challenges the Secretary of Defense’s decision.