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Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Just the facts? The importance of science in formulating and implementing policy

The integration of women into all military occupational specialties (MOS) has dominated the discussions in security and policy circles for the past several months.




A review of a special edition of Military Medicine 
By Jeannette Haynie & Kyleanne Hunter
Best Defense guest reviewers

The integration of women into all military occupational specialties (MOS) has dominated the discussions in security and policy circles for the past several months. Though it is now clear that integration is happening, there is still quite a bit of opposition to it, and misinformation about what integration means and how it will be implemented is fairly widespread. Last month, we, along with Kate Germano, shared our views on why leadership matters in implementing this change, and we emphasized the way leadership can set the tone while combating misinformation and rumors. Looking ahead, we believe that the military currently has an unprecedented opportunity to make itself a more effective and efficient fighting force. In addition to setting the proper tone on integration, leadership deserves the best tools and information available in order to ensure integration is done in the most effective and efficient way possible. The January 2016 special edition of Military Medicine, “Women in Combat,”* provides several essential insights for commanders looking to guide the integration effort. It also falls critically short of ideal by focusing on the average members of both genders without regard to the population often represented by service members, especially those members who aspire to go infantry, and the majority of the included studies habitually settle into rigid gender stereotypes in content and tone, reminding us of how far we still have to travel.

Despite its flaws, however, the analyses presented in this special edition of Military Medicine can help provide an unemotional view of the totality of the issue. For a debate so centered on emotion and intangible “culture” aspects, the introduction of hard scientific data is invigorating and can elevate the discussion, as long as we can recognize the inherent biases that are often present in even the most robust scientific analyses. Just as it has in similarly relevant areas for years, rigorous academic analysis has a critical role to play in informing policy makers’ and military leadership’s decisions with regard to gender integration. Academic research can allay misgivings and keep myths from taking root while informing the decisions of senior leaders. Below, we assess lessons that leaders can take away from the research brought forward in the special edition of Military Medicine.

The lessons for leadership to be gleaned from this volume fall into two main categories.

1. Physical Performance — we’ve been talking about it wrong.

Much of the discussion on fully integrating women into the military has focused on physical ability. Both sides on the integration debate have championed the role of physical performance in different ways, often primarily through anecdotes or personal experiences, and without the addition of scientific data.

These ongoing arguments, however, have failed to address or include three main areas; this issue of Military Medicine makes up for lost time by highlighting studies that focus on these issues, providing critical missing information for both senior leaders and policy makers.

The impact of equipment on physical performance: Since ground-combat related jobs have historically been closed to women, the specialized safety and operating equipment required for combat jobs has been designed around the male physique. As Pamela Savage-Knepshield and her colleagues note, optimizing equipment for the female physique requires much more than just shrinking it in size (Savage-Knepshield, Thomas, Schweitzer, Kozycki, and Hullinger). While the purpose of their article is to introduce a statistics-based approach to optimizing design and procurement of future combat systems, their discussion on the interplay between ergonomic design and physical performance is a great value-added to the practical discussion on women’s physical capabilities. Anecdotal data abound, but continued qualitative and quantitative work in this issue area is needed.

Two key findings of Savage-Knepshield et al’s research offer alternative explanations to the comparatively poor performance of females during a recent USMC gender integration study. First, actual physical performance is not necessarily due to inferior skills or innate abilities. Ill-fitting or poorly designed equipment leads to a 12 to 27 percent degradation in physical performance when compared to someone with the same skill level and properly fitting equipment (Savage-Knepshield et al). Given what we know about the lack of female-specific infantry-equipment, some of the discrepancy in physical performance can be explained by improper gear. Second, the cognitive impact of these physical discrepancies can take a visible toll on physical performance. In addition to physical limitations, Savage-Knepshield and her colleagues found an adverse cognitive impact resulting from the frustration of dealing with ill-fitting and potentially injury-inducing gear. The cognitive side-effects included degraded navigation capabilities, slower decision making, and a lack in certainty in decisions made. Both these physical and cognitive short-comings have nothing to do with any innate characteristic of being female, but are the result of limitations imposed on women by the historical legacy of the all-male infantry.

The impact of initial training on the future success of military members: The physical demands of the infantry, and the inability of a statistically small pool of women to meet these demands, has been repeatedly cited as a reason against integration. While first hand experience has argued that the double standard for men and women has held women back from their full potential, there has been little scientific research as to the link between training constraints and performance degradation. One of the key findings by Bradley Nindl and his colleagues is that physical training and conditioning must be frequent and continuous (Nindl, Jones, Van Arsdale, Kelly, and Kraemer). Expecting women to “catch up” to male standards after initial training deficits puts them at a great disadvantage, as they will never be able to make up for the lack of initial hard work. Given that women are conditioned to train and perform to lower physical standards than men are from a very early age, the amount of catching up needed is often substantial. And while there have been public calls for consistent standards in the early training of female service members, often largely from the women themselves, the primarily male military leadership has remained largely silent on this issue. The data and analysis undertaken by Nindl et al, coupled with several suggestions on implementation of efficient training regimes for different jobs, give leadership the tools to talk about the traditional short comings of physical preparation and address the root of the problem, rather than focusing on its symptoms.

Focusing on traditional infantry tactics and physical requirements does not reflect the current realities of war fighting: While tactical discussions are outside the scope of Military Medicine, the findings in the journal offer insights into the future of the integrated force and its abilities to face current and future threats. First, findings show that women actually have more innate physical capability in austere environments. Most arguments based on biological difference center on discrepancies in raw strength, but the fighting a war is often more about endurance, intelligence, and longevity than it is about pure brute strength. The findings of Nindl et al highlight the fact that women can operate successfully in a greater range of temperatures and require fewer calories per day, potentially making them more efficient in extreme hot/cold, or without access to frequent resupply. Higher pain thresholds (Nindl et al) and the ability for more efficient and effective healing (MClung and Stomberg) may give women an advantage on the modern battlefield. As infantry units move more towards small teams that spend a great amount of time away from headquarters, women on average may be more capable at thriving in such environments.

2. Unit Culture has Physical Consequences 

In addition to physical arguments about women’s integration, cultural particulars have been used as an argument against women joining traditionally all-male units. While this edition of Military Medicine focuses on the physical aspects of women in the military, there are several important lessons about command climate to be gleaned from its findings.

First of all, the command climate can have critical impacts on physical performance. As McGraw noted, the stress of ostracism is often greater on women because there are fewer mechanisms in place for social support before, during and after deployment. Likewise, as Southwell and Wadsworth explained, family members of female service members suffer more and have a harder time adapting back home, leading to additional stress on a deployed female service member. Given the strong relationship between social ostracism and the body’s ability to heal from physical pain, commanders must recognize and act to counter this. Until military traditions and structures grow to reflect the realities of modern family life, female service members will still suffer greater impacts due to deployments, family needs, and poor command climates.

Second, as Segal explores in both of her articles, the military needs to address how its physical and mental expectations and existing standards in all aspects of service members’ lives, such as the regimentation of military families and the support systems that exist to serve “family readiness” serve to disadvantage female service members. Segal argues that the military should adopt the conceptual model of health, not merely a physical one. While the military pays lip-service to this idea, little in reality has been done to practically ensure the mental and cognitive health of service members.

Cohesion, as we wrote earlier this year is fostered by leaders, as they set the tone from the top. Understanding the impacts of seemingly-innocent policies on all members of the military, not simply those with traditional families and a solid support structure at home, is critical to setting a good tone and fostering strong cohesion. Segal’s conceptual model of health, as well as McGraw’s findings on mental health and social belonging, provide valuable tools to leaders in understanding their role in ensuring a successful transition to fully integrated forces.

And finally, leaders need to understand the family structures that support those they lead and how those structures can determine success or failure for both individual service members and for the unit at large. Since the military already recognizes the role of family readiness in ensuring successful deployments and training, expanding the idea of a family to cover all families can enable leaders to recognize a failing or critical situation.As more women enter the all volunteer force, and more career opportunities are available to them, the prevalence of “nontraditional” military families will rise. Providing mechanisms that address the reality of dual-military, or dual-working spouse families, as well as non-traditional childcare providers (Southwell and Wadsworth) will not only ease the process of integration but will ensure a more effective military overall.


Scientific rigor and analysis has a place in aiding policy makers and key decision makers, and this special issue of Military Medicine takes a giant, welcome leap in that direction by providing a quantitative focus to balance a wide range of anecdotal evidence. However, its limitations must be recognized.

The recent completion of a Marine Corps-led study of gender-integrated groups in simulated combat provides a cautionary example of how scientific analysis, despite its benefits, can also have drawbacks. If completed with less rigorous standards, or with a biased or incomplete design, the results of such studies can be inaccurate, which can mislead leaders and policymakers while informing rumors and fostering myths. Finding qualified support for continued gender segregation in combat positions, this study has been used to support the belief that women are weaker, slower, and “come up short” in physical tasks, providing the backdrop for top military leaders to question the benefits of full integration. In recent weeks, however, the Commandant of the Marine Corps has admitted that the women in the study were less trained than their male counterparts, while other researchers have raised significant questions about the method in which its findings were released and its inherent methodological flaws. This example demonstrates both the dire need for scientific analysis in this discussion as well as the need to engage emerging research with a skeptical eye until the strengths and weaknesses of each are clearly understood.

Even when scientific analysis is rigorous and balanced, it can still miss the point. Despite solid research into current average male and female capabilities and family situations, for example, both Nindl et al and McGraw failed to address the “bell curve overlap” between the genders or the narrowing gap between average male and female capabilities over time, so neither study drew conclusions for the possibility of future physical adaptations for male or female service members. Likewise, no study discussed how men in particular have physically changed in the decades since World War II ended. The existence of Title IX alone has brought with it major changes in the physical performance of women across the spectrum, and especially within the services, which practically begs for quantitative analysis.

Overall, the data and studies in Military Medicine provide additional objective data to help bring dispassionate facts to this debate. For military leaders in particular, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of statistics and what such data bring to the debate is critical to the successful integration of women into all roles in the U.S. military. These data do not speak for all women just as they do not speak for all men, but they do provide a valuable baseline for a greater understanding of the forces at work.

If anything, the insights gleaned from this special edition highlight the continued need for more dialogue between academics and practitioners. Academic rigor has the ability to remove emotion and passion from critical policy decisions. As the armed services move forward with integration, it is essential that they maintain an open and honest dialogue with researchers to ensure that the necessary data is being collected. Conversely, researchers must remain engaged in the policy world to ensure the right variables and data are being collected. This may require a leap of faith for the military, especially for those Services (like the Marine Corps) that traditionally mistrust “academics.” However, to make the U.S. military as strong as possible, we must explore all means available. For as Frank Zappa once said, “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”

[*For the purposes of this piece, specific articles in this special edition will be referenced parenthetically by the authors’ name. For example (Smith, Jones, and Williams)]

Jeannette Haynie is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves, a Cobra pilot by trade, and a combat veteran. She is a Ph.D. candidate at the George Washington University, studying domestic terrorism and inequality. Kyleanne Hunter served over a decade as an officer in the Marine Corps. She also is a Cobra pilot by trade, serving multiple combat deployments, and was the Marine Corps’ Liaison Officer to the House of Representatives. She is currently a Ph.D. student at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, studying military gender integration and political violence. This article reflects their own personal views, which are not necessarily those of the Marine Corps, the Navy Department, or the Defense Department. 

Photo credit: Cpl. Anna Albrecht/U.S. Marine Corps/U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/U.S. Fifth Fleet/Flickr

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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