Best Defense

Women in military are hurt by the bigotry of low expectations, so help them by holding them to standards of excellence

By Ashley Nicolas Best Defense guest columnist After serving for five years as an intelligence officer in a U.S. Army Stryker brigade, I recently left the armed forces to continue serving as a high school math teacher on the East Side of San Jose, California. During my transition, I did a tremendous amount of reading ...

via Tyler Bolken/Flickr
via Tyler Bolken/Flickr

By Ashley Nicolas

Best Defense guest columnist

After serving for five years as an intelligence officer in a U.S. Army Stryker brigade, I recently left the armed forces to continue serving as a high school math teacher on the East Side of San Jose, California.

During my transition, I did a tremendous amount of reading about urban education, poverty, and adolescence because, as any good intelligence officer will tell you, you must understand your battlefield. My research exposed me to the idea of the "bigotry of low expectations," the idea that many educators in low-income, urban communities make excuses for their students, celebrating their most minor success (ie. attending school) while failing to hold them to the high standards of academic rigor to which their more wealthy, and generally more white peers, are held. As such, the students in these communities rise to exactly the level of the low bar set for them and fail to ever achieve the kind of academic success that they are certainly capable of attaining. In essence, "they become what you expect of them." Holding artificially low expectations for a group of individuals is a quiet, yet catastrophic, form of bigotry.

As I read this essay, I was struck by the similarities between the way in which these students are viewed by educators and the way women are viewed in the Army. During my time in service I heard every myth and stereotype used as an excuse to keep women out of the combat arms club; my two favorites, of course, "women do not have upper body strength" and "women are too emotional to lead in combat." Low bars for performance are set, minimum performance is expected and anything exceeding the minimum is viewed as exemplary. This is both dangerous and destructive.

The minimum passing push up standard for women in the US Army is 17 in two minutes (ages 17-21). Female candidates to the United States Military Academy are not required to complete a single pull-up, while male candidates are required to perform multiple pull-ups in cadence. From day one, the military clearly does not expect women to be able to perform to the standards of their male peers. How can we ever expect any female soldier to be successful in the world of the combat arms if we don’t even require her to be able to pull her own body weight over a bar? Further, there is no reason that firing a weapon, maintaining a vehicle or caring for soldiers should be considered "male" skills. As such, we should not be surprised, or frankly impressed, when a female does any of the above. I firmly believe that no woman in uniform should ever wait for standards to change in order to show that she can excel, but it is worth understanding that the culture that exists is one of low expectations, but also promotes it. This is bigotry of low expectations at its finest.

Articles like this, published on Aug. 24 in the Marine Corps Times, exacerbate this notion. The article celebrates the success of Marine 1st Lt Amanda Mathew, who recently became the first woman to lead a deployed combat arms platoon. While this is a worthy accomplishment and one worth noting, the article lays out her success in such a way that should insult every woman that wears a uniform. The author notes that Mathew was humble, physically fit, and technically competent. She asked questions of her Marines and approached her job with motivation and tenacity. What is newsworthy about any of that? Why should this behavior be so celebrated? Why isn’t this the minimum of what we expect of women in all branches of service? There are countless young, male junior officers across the military doing all of these things, and they are not celebrated in the least. They are expected to perform to this level.

Ask any senior non-commissioned officer what they expect of a young lieutenant and I guarantee that the senior elicited will say humility, physical fitness and technical competence. Why are women not held to those same standards? While Lt. Mathew appears to be an excellent junior officer, her performance should be the example of the baseline expectation, not the ceiling. The conversation about women in combat arms desperately needs to be refocused. If the mission of the United States military is to defend the nation and to defeat her enemies around the globe, then the discussion should center around how to build the most capable, competent, efficient and lethal force possible. If this is the focus, then the concern should not be the gender of the individual pulling the trigger, but rather the capability of that individual.

Ashley Nicolas is a former U.S. Army intelligence officer and graduate of the United States Military Academy. She is a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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