Women in the Military

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.


25 Responses to Women in the Military

  1. SLC says:

    1. It should be pointed out that, during WW 2, the former Soviet Union had entire squadrons of fighter planes with female pilots who performed just as efficiently as their male counterparts.

    2. In terms of upper body strength, there are some women who can out perform 99% of the personnel in the US armed forces. For example, body builder Bev Francis (who was able to bench press 400 pounds) was probably stronger then all but a few members of the US armed forces.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    Besides women who can outperform many men, but are still barred from combat roles for irrational reasons, there’s the fact that military training is a good way to improve your physical prowess. Usually if you’re not in a special ops unit, you’ll never need to wrestle anyone in battle; and if you are, you’ll probably receive some martial arts training, which can negate almost any strength differential.

  3. Ken C. says:

    I think a few points are missing here.

    For something like army recruiting, the average is more important than the extreme, and the extreme doesn’t necessarily say anything about the average. Male vs. female at the Olympic level says nothing about average recruits. Similarly, faculty representation at elite universities says nothing about average male vs. female intellectual abilities.

    Surely, it’s not size or upper body strength that matters, it’s something more like need for supplies vs. military effectiveness. Women are smaller, but need fewer calories, and so on, so the same supplies support more of them. An army of three-foot-high soldiers might do very well.

    Mainly, though, only individuals matter: if there are some qualities that make for more effective soldiers, those are the qualities that should be selected for. It shouldn’t matter how many men or women have them. Of course, by this view, there shouldn’t be an arbitrary division in athletics between men and women either, any more than by race.

  4. […] Alon made some very good points, but I’d like to add one: those who say that women are physically unsuitable for combat roles ignore the wide range of physical ablities among male combat troops. […]

  5. Alon Levy says:

    There are two different arguments here. One is about individuals: obviously, any kind of arbitrary gender barrier is futile, since it fails to take into account the fact that individuals are not just instances of a group. But that isn’t enough, since people can argue disingenuously that there’s no discrimination going on and any existing inequalities are biological; showing that there’s no real difference between group averages lays waste to that line of defense.

  6. Bruce says:

    I would beg to differ – or at least to invite further elaboration – about whether the ability to haul 40 kg of gear (90 pounds, approx.) does not depend on upper body strength and, perhaps equally, raw mass, weight and height. Marching miles with 90 pounds of gear is no joke; you can experiment with this by loading 6 15lb dumbbells into a firm knapsack and while wearing it walking 5 km, which is the official army marching speed per hour. If there are studies that refute what I am saying, I would love to be corrected on this.

    I am also not sure that upper body strength would not improve accuracy with a firearm. Long guns have recoil and require the strength to lift, aim, hold, fire and repeat; I would suspect that upper body strength and body mass might help in managing recoil. Granted, it is an easy skill to test and my hypothesis might be wrong, or trivial (who cares if it’s a .5% difference, the costs of sifting that out might be prohibitive.) Perhaps you know of an applicable study, there are probably dozens.

    Mind you, I oppose discrimination in the military and am in agreement with almost everything else you said.

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  9. Navy Chick says:

    so – I feel I’m pretty qualified to comment here…. I’m a female, but have been continually stationed with Navy SEALs for 3 years – and have to tell you – I really don’t think gender is important as long as body composition it right. They are not any bigger than I am – and I can carry just as much as them if I go to the gym as much. I can swim as fast, and shoot as accurately – looking from the outside in, I always thought they were these super heroes, and that there was some magic qualification that kept women from doing it. Now that my eyes are opened, there is no doubt, that given the same motivation, and the same physical training – a woman could join the ranks….please no GI Jane jokes. I’m just saying – the physical stuff is easy to overcome. It’s the psychological part that they will have a hard time with. Yes, I said they. They woman will have no problem whatsoever doing her job – it’s the men that have a hard time treating her the same as one of his “brothers”. If the woman falls behind in the run, does the man motivate her and tell her to get her ass in gear, or does he say, “aw, it’s ok…I know you can’t keep up cause your a girl -here, let me carry you.” blegh. total crap. keep the standards the same, let the women try to measure up – and if they can – let them in!

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  12. Max says:

    The average woman is a little over 5’4″. The average man is a little over 5’9″.

    The average woman weighs around 150.
    The average man weighs 180.

    Therefore, the comparison between men and women of the same height/weight in Olympic sporting events is obviously irrelevant.

    In the military and most of the time in life, men are not only 50% stronger, they are also significantly larger. They have more muscle mass and more large muscle fiber mass. They also have 30% greater aerobic capacity for better oxygenation of the muscles they do have which means greater endurance. It’s really sad that this is just one more subject where the truth simply can not be spoken.

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