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Opinion: Deck stacked against women in experimental task force

Jul. 6, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
A female Marine lieutenant and her male counterparts at the Infantry Officer Course get their next orders after completing land navigation at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, in July 2013.
A female Marine lieutenant and her male counterparts at the Infantry Officer Course get their next orders after completing land navigation at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, in July 2013. (Staff)
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When the secretary of defense rescinded the 1994 “direct ground combat” exclusion policy, he gave the services and Special Operations Command three years to fully integrate women into previously closed occupations and units.

The Marine Corps’ initial plan, published in May 2013, called for a multi-phased approach to opening 70,000 closed positions. By late 2013, however, it was clear that internally set benchmarks and timelines were not being met. So the Marines decided to regroup and take a new approach, which Gen. Jim Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, outlined in a March 12 White Letter: “Integrating Female Marines within the Ground Combat Element.” The new plan has four lines of effort and includes an experiment called the Ground Combat Integrated Task Force, which Brig. Gen. George Smith is overseeing.

In April, Smith toured Marine Corps installations to update Marines on this new approach and invite volunteers to join the task force. I attended the briefing he presented April 10 at Henderson Hall in Virginia.

Smith reassured Marines that no standards are being lowered to accommodate female Marines. Additionally, he applauded the results of surveys that show a much higher proportion of female Marines want to serve in combat specialties, compared with female soldiers. Only 22 percent of Army women say they are moderately or very interested in transferring into combat specialties, while 40 percent of female Marines say they want that opportunity.

As part of the first phase of the first integration plan, female Marines were allowed to volunteer for entry-level enlisted and officer infantry courses, a pilot program to determine if women had the physical abilities to complete the courses. As a result, more than 86 women have graduated from the enlisted infantry course, although no women officers have graduated from the infantry officer course.

Since it is now clear that at least enlisted women have the ability to complete entry-level infantry training requirements, the Marine Corps wants to see how women will hold up over time and against collective task training. According to Smith, the rigors of “collective” tasks, learned out in the units, require more advanced skill sets and are harder than entry-level individual tasks. This new experiment is an attempt to determine if women will be able to continue to succeed once they get out into ground combat elements. On the surface, this new plan sounds reasonable, but when you begin to chip away at the details, problems become evident. Here’s why:

The task force is going to comprise about 500 Marines, including about 120 female Marine volunteers. The women are being recruited now, and they will go through combat occupational training starting this summer. In the fall, volunteers will be assigned to one of three sets of teams within the task force. There will be all male teams, and two sets of teams with some, as yet undetermined, level of gender mixing. The male team is being called the “control group” against which the other teams will be measured. Therein lies the beginning of the problem.

Research scientists know that a control group is never part of the treatment group, which in this case is anyone involved in, or assigned to, the experimental task force. A control group for this experiment would be an external ground combat element with no knowledge of their role as a comparison group. Another way to approach this would be to have all teams measured against a pre-established Marine Corps standard. What this “experiment” is actually doing is creating a competition with stacked teams. The teams are stacked because the men are all seasoned/trained Marines while the women will be brand new to these specialties. The result is that any teams that include women will begin at a disadvantage. They won’t have the level and depth of training and experience that the all-male teams will have. It would be like having three baseball teams compete against each other but two of the teams have varying amounts of new players on their teams while one team has already been to the World Series. And, it’s the World Series team that the other teams need to beat or at least tie.

Second, Smith said this experiment will gather data that will be used to assess “individual impacts, unit impacts and institutional impacts.” But he failed to mention what kind of data is being collected or how it will be analyzed to assess those impacts. However, he did say that the Marines are now consulting with external agencies, including experts from the Center for Naval Analysis, Rand and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, among others, to provide input to this experiment.

Finally, Smith said this experiment will cost the Marine Corps $21 million. It might be more cost effective for the Marine Corps officials to simply consult previous studies that get at some of their concerns. The Army Research Institute previously conducted the Maximum Women Army Content study to determine the maximum number of women that could be allowed into Army units before unit performance is degraded. Interestingly, the study found no relationship between the percentage of women in Army units and any subsequent degradation of capabilities. When the Army didn’t get the results they were expecting, namely that women degrade capabilities, they conducted a follow-up study designed to determine if women would hold up over extended periods of time. The follow-up study similarly found no degradation to unit performance over time. If the Marines reject the findings of the Army because they were conducted on combat support units, they might want to look at the Canadian Combat Related Employment of Women studies, conducted before Canada opened all combat units and specialties to women.

If these studies do not provide the answers the Marine Corps seeks, it should reassure taxpayers of the soundness of the research methodology. The Marine Corps has a long tradition of excellent service to this country, and changing institutional norms requires time and “buy-in” from all members. This experiment may be worth the time and the money it takes to garner the necessary buy in, but it must be thorough and its findings must be accurate, in keeping with the best traditions of the Corps itself.

Haring is a senior fellow at Women in International Security, wiisglobal.org.

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