Measuring Progress of Women in Combat

Army equipment officials say engineers are adapting body armor so it provides a more comfortable fit for female soldiers.

We measure the wrong things when it comes to women in the military -- and it may only get worse as combat roles are opened to women.

This week in the Wall Street Journal, Bill Gates made a case for how measuring the right things can fuel change on a global scale.  He states: “You can achieve incredible progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal.” 

That is not what we are doing when it comes to opening combat to women. I am all for women in combat roles.

Yet right now the measure we watch most carefully is the number of women the military: Fifteen percent of the military is female. Over 280,000 women served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of the fallen, 130 have been women.

Remember what Gates said -- the measure is supposed to drive progress toward the goal.

So, remind me: What is the goal for women in combat? Is it to have an equal number of female warriors who perform exactly as men perform? Is it to have enough women progressing through the ranks fast enough that the media stays off the military’s back? Is it to be able to conduct modern warfare at peak efficiency?

Army Gen. Robert Cone, commanding general of Training and Doctrine Command, seems to think the goal is to create warfighters. Immediately following the announcement that combat roles would be open to women, Cone said combat jobs will be all about physical standards. "Standards that mean something," he emphasized.

I want to believe that. I want to believe that we have progressed past the kind of standards that claim that women are unfit for any combat job because they might have PMS. 

Instead, we need meaninful standards. If the job actually requires you to carry and live out of your ruck for 75 days at a time, then the standard would be to lift and carry and live out of a ruck for 75 days. 

If the job requires you to throw a 150-pound person over your shoulder and lift your weapon 40 times a day, then you throw a 150-pound person over your shoulder and lift your weapon 40 times a day.

If the job requires that you to swim 500 yards in 8 minutes or run 1.5 miles in nine minutes, then that is what you do -- regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, education, or socioeconomic background.

After a decade of war, we must know now that combat jobs are physical jobs with physical measures. Those measures must drive us toward the goal of deploying a powerful force capable of meeting any opponent.

So I want to believe that we Americans will demand the establishment of these measures and insist that they be enforced at every level. I want to believe each member of our military will be measured by the sum of their abilities and actions and strengths. I want to believe that we will be willing to look beyond the blunt measure of how many women can achieve these meaningful physical standards and instead measure our progress toward the goal.

That’s what I want to believe. Instead, I see a time where we proudly state that X number of women serve in combat roles. And I know that will not be progress.

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Jacey Eckhart is the Director of Spouse and Family Programs at Military.com and a military sociologist.  Since 1996, Eckhart’s take on military families has been featured in her syndicated column, her book The Homefront Club, and her award winning CDs These Boots and I Married a Spartan??

Most recently she has been featured as a military family subject matter expert on NBC Dateline, CBS morning news, CNN, NPR and the New York Times.  Eckhart is an Air Force brat, a Navy wife and an Army mom.  

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