I’m increasingly passionate about the issues military women face before, during, and after service.
A strong body of research points to a significant correlation between expectations and performance. When students are told they’re gifted, their academic performance improves. When the four-minute mile record was finally broken, 24 other runners broke that mark within a year. From classrooms to combat, performance improves alongside increased expectations. The inverse is true of negative expectations: Low expectations result in lowered performance.
Stereotypes commonly accepted can actually lead to people meeting the lower bar set for them. This phenomenon is known as “stereotype threat.” Expectations are communicated verbally and nonverbally, and performance requirements are clear communications about the expectations the Marine Corps has of women. From the moment female recruits enter Marine boot camp, they are trained to a lower standard. This formalizes expectations that translate to stereotype threats: that they will run more slowly, have weaker upper body strength, and shoot a target with less accuracy than men.
As of June 2016, only one in seven female Marines seeking to enter combat-arms specialties passed the Corps’ rigorous, gender-neutral performance tests. But the small number of women who met the standards is due less to physiology than to recruiting and training methods. Without a concerted focus on recruiting mentally and physically strong, female high school athletes, and then rigorously preparing them to succeed at recruit training, the service will continue to enlist women who struggle to meet the physical standard for female enlistment, much less the gender-neutral ground combat job requirements.
The result is a vicious cycle whereby the female frailty myth is perpetuated: Because we assume we can’t recruit strong, tough women, we use lower standards and segregated training to ensure marginally qualified women can graduate. Opponents of tougher standards can then argue that increasing standards for women would result in even lower numbers of women capable of meeting enlistment standards. The problem there is a surprising one for military women — this psychosocial climate breeds ill health. Our bodies read exclusion and marginalization as physical threats. Low levels of social support and unit cohesion impact the physical and mental health of military women, driving up rates of stress injury and impairing physical performance. When we become veterans, this shows up in our reintegration outcomes.