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Are women equal?
Throughout the ages, women’s participation in vigorous physical activity and sport has always been embroiled in controversy. However, we have come a long way from the 1800’s when exercise was thought to be hazardous to a woman as she was considered “weakened” during the menstrual cycle. I laugh out loud at this when I live in a time when women can now engage in combat.
The recent announcement by the US Military that women will now be allowed into combat is a perfect example of this controversy, the answer to which, for many, is rooted firmly in their beliefs and values regarding women’s roles and capabilities.
The military has not yet divulged much detail on exactly what positions women will assume during combat. This has opened the door to a lot of speculation. However, it is expected that a large number of infantry positions will be newly available to women, as they have been totally banned from these in the past. This debate centres around two main issues, namely the effectiveness of women in these combat positions, and what society perceives women’s roles should and shouldn’t be, or what women can and cannot handle.
Infantry is the branch of the army that fights on foot. We have all seen the war movies with soldiers running away, dodging bullets while carrying heavy backpacks, and even wounded soldiers on their backs, diving behind buildings and cars for protection while shooting large weapons and throwing bombs great distances. These units have more physically demanding training than other branches of the army. This training places a great emphasis on discipline, physical strength, fitness and spontaneous, sustained aggression.
Consider this. If you had to choose between a man and a woman, whom would you prefer alongside you on the front lines during combat? Before you jump quickly to answer, consider some more facts. To work in a tank, women must demonstrate the ability to quickly and repeatedly load 55-pound tank shells, just as men do. Infantry troops also carry backpacks weighing 60-70 pounds, and even more. That is more than half an average female’s bodyweight. Since roadside bombs are a common cause of injury during warfare, a female combat soldier must be able to quickly lift and carry an injured 200-pound male out of danger.
The battle for equality in the military has been mis-translated into a demand for equal results, and into a political agenda. As a result there has been a change in the standards to accommodate the lower physical abilities of women, and therefore the scores of physical tests are gender-normed.
For example, the minimum score that a Navy woman must achieve in order to pass her physical readiness test is 11 percent fewer sit-ups, 53 per cent fewer push-ups, and by running 1.5 miles at a pace that is 27 per cent slower than the scores required of men. Have you answered the question yet?
The problem lies in the definition and/or interpretation of “equality.” People must also be realistic and practical, keeping the bigger picture of victory at the forefront rather than petty politics.
Equality does not mean equal results or success rates on tests. Standards do not have to be dropped. They are what they are, and are engineered to ensure efficiency and performance in battle. Dropping such requirements puts the entire army, and ultimately the country, in great jeopardy.
What counts is that women are allowed to “try out” for these positions. If most are unable to make the cut, then so be it, as the standards dictate that those who fail will be unable to perform as needed. The fact that they are allowed to try out is what equal opportunity really means.
In fact, dropping standards to accommodate women, is actually saying that women are not “good enough” to make the standard required of men, and in essence facilitates “inequality.” Battle is not sport, where gender norms are applicable. Battle is life and death.
There are many other less physically demanding, but equally important positions in combat in which women can serve, and in which they are already doing. Female helicopter pilots fly in and out of battle zones. Marine women deployed to Afghanistan in teams known as “lionesses” gather valuable information by speaking Afghan to women who would never speak to male US troops. Female medics treat the wounded on the front lines.
The fact of the matter is that women are physically different from men, and therefore the genders excel in different roles. Militaries will be much stronger forces when those in charge put politics aside, and accept this. Focus should be on redefining their understanding of “equality,” and creating equal opportunities to meet the standards required by the tasks performed during combat, rather than by dropping standards to create equal presence of both sexes.
• Carla Rauseo, DPT, C.S.C.S. is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at Total Rehabilitation Centre Ltd in El Socorro.
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