Lindsay wrote a post about the recent revelations of wanton sexual assault in the US military, committed by male recruiters against potential female recruits. In general I don’t write about stories like this, since I consider “Man rapes woman” and “Soldier abuses civilian” to be about as newsworthy as “Dog bites man.” But one troll, Jane, posted a red herring about how women were naturally weaker than men, so it was okay to discriminate against them, harass them, and assault them in the military.
I don’t want to dwell so much about the obviously ludicrous portions of Jane’s comments, but her point about biological differences contains two arguments that, while not even remotely true, are at least nontrivial: namely, that women are indeed ill-suited for combat roles for biological reasons, and that sending women off to battle will deprive the country of its scarce uterine resources.
In a modern war fought by a first-world country, casualties are typically low. So far, American military deaths in Iraq amount to less than one hundred thousandth of the American population. Even high-casualty wars can’t seriously endanger reproduction – in World War Two the country with the highest military deaths to population ratio, Germany, lost 8% of its population that way. So in reality, the reproductive argument is just a sexist excuse to hold women back, rather than a serious argument supporting the continuation of the patriarchy.
The physical-ability argument is a bit harder to refute, if only because discrimination against women in occupations requiring physical strength is so pervasive that one needs to look around a lot just to find evidence one way or another.
Women have less upper body strength than men. This is not in doubt. In the Olympics, women lift a quarter less weight than men in the same weight class. In a comprehensive meta-study about gender-differences among children and teenagers, the only factor on which there is a large difference is throw distance.
However, it doesn’t matter too much in the military. Differences in upper body strength won’t prevent a woman from carrying 40 kg of gear on her back. They won’t prevent her from shooting accurately.
In addition, they won’t prevent her from running as fast as a man: returning to the Olympics, the differences between male and female records in 100m is 7-8% of the male record, rising to about 10% in longer races; and significantly, female winners are likelier than male winners to come from the Eastern bloc, which had less discrimination in matters like this than the rest of the world. A difference that little is small enough to attribute to a smaller talent pool resulting from underfunding and undervaluing of women’s sports.
Even in combat roles, differences between men and women are too small to justify anything other than full equality. If fewer women enlist in the first place then it’s one thing, but when women are categorically prohibited from, for example, serving in tanks, it’s a whole other thing.
While small differences can become huge when we’re only talking about exceptional individuals – see any article supporting Larry Summers’ take on women in the academia for details – the military equivalent of exceptional individuals, special ops, requires a large variety of skills, few of which display gender differences. The special ops troop needs not only to run quickly and have high stamina, but also think fast, be able to survive for a few days without food or water, shoot accurately, switch weapons quickly, and so on.
And, of course, none of this has any bearing on support positions, where the required skills are rarely physical.