A Few Good Women

With Secretary Panetta's decision, the law has now caught up to reality. The exclusion policy didn't keep women out of combat. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated this self-evident truth: bullets, bombs, RPGs and IEDs know no gender.
09/22/2015 05:31 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2016

In 2013, then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey lifted the Direct Ground Combat and Assignment Rule frequently referred to as the "Combat Exclusion Policy", opening all remaining closed combat position to women. This was a military decision endorsed by politicians about military readiness, strategic decision-making, and national security.

Shortly thereafter, Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno said, "We need their talent. This is about managing talent. We have incredibly talented females who should be in those positions." This reflected an October 2010 decision by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus to open two classes of nuclear submarines to women.

With Secretary Panetta's decision, the law has now caught up to reality. The exclusion policy didn't keep women out of combat. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated this self-evident truth: bullets, bombs, RPGs and IEDs know no gender.

In August, two women graduated from the Army's storied Ranger School. They demonstrated that physical strength, mental toughness, and leadership are not gender specific. They are found in exceptional men and women.

Ranger School is considered the Army's premier small unit leadership school. Only 3% of the Army has earned the Ranger Tab. Individual performance and an individual's contribution as a member of a team are the sole considerations. Average men and women do not earn the Ranger tab; the men and women who graduate Ranger school are exceptional soldiers.

Shortly there after, the Navy announced that its SEAL program would be open to women. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jon Greenert said, "Why shouldn't anyone who can meet the standard be accepted?"

This is the key to successful integration -- setting physical and mental standards based on job requirements, and physical and mental capability, not gender. Most of the opposition to allowing women in combat arms branches focus on doubts about women possessing the requisite strength and stamina and/or whether the presence of women dilutes unit cohesion. Unit cohesion arguments have been roundly debunked by the ongoing integration of populations into the military, most recently gays and lesbians. As for physical readiness, the success of women Army Rangers debunked those concerns.

Nevertheless, last week, in the wake of Ranger graduation, the Marine Corps hastily released its own study of women in infantry roles, concluding that all-male combat units performed better than mixed units.

This study has multiple flaws, which include inadequate screening and training of the women; failure to control for variability in experience of participating; and evaluating groups rather than individuals. The Marine Corps Times also hinted at cultural difficulties growing out of the USMC's unique practice of training recruits separately by gender.

The Marines have never been about average. They have always been about exceptional -- the few, the proud. Yet, they base their conclusions of the effectiveness of all male units based on the average performance of Marines grouped by gender, rather than evaluating individuals to meet a single standard. In fact, unlike the Army, they didn't even screen women volunteers to ensure that they met anything better than the baseline standard of physical fitness. Despite their initial training deficits, many women showed that they are capable of meeting the rigorous physical and tactical standards required for infantry training - but they weren't evaluated on their own abilities, only by the total group.

It is encouraging that the Marine Corps, for the first time in its history, is creating standards that can be used for occupational operational combat effectiveness. Now that these standards have been set, why not allow individual Marines to train to and meet these standards, regardless of gender?

When women (51% of our population) are excluded from combat units and positions, we are squandering immeasurable resources and contributions. There is more to our Nation's current fight than simply physical strength, and the winner will be the side that does not exclude half their population. Diverse organizations and teams innovate and produce more optimal outcomes than homogeneous teams, which risk group-think and too often reach sub-optimal solutions.

For too long, the Marine Corps has demanded and expected too little from women Marines. The Marine Corps needs to learn from the other services. Set high, job-based standards and demand that women meet them as well as men. Screen for highly qualified women for Infantry roles, rather than setting a low baseline. Hold leaders accountable to train to, and demand these high standards.

With gender-neutral occupational standards established, the best-qualified Marines operating in the right positions will not only maximize their individual potential, but optimize the total fighting force in defense of our great Nation.