Cultural Prism: Integrating women in combat roles

There should be no gender criteria for any position, only standards to allocate the best people, and mechanisms to construct the best fighting teams.

December 15, 2016 20:31
IDF Paratroopers.

IDF Paratroopers.. (photo credit: AMIT BAR-YOSEF)

"Men and women are different.”

In today’s hypersensitive environment, this factual statement may lead to scornful expressions and categorization of the speaker as chauvinist, sexist and misogynist.

A recent decision by the IDF to assess the possibility of incorporating women in the Armored Corps has stirred up bitter controversy.

Women currently serve in a variety of combat units, from aviation and coed border-security battalions, to battlefield medicine and air defense. But front-line, direct-combat ground units, still employ only men.

The US military is still struggling to figure out the integration policy imposed last December by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who stressed that women could serve in all positions, “as long as they qualify and meet the standards.” So strong is the urge to demonstrate implementation that recruiters are scouting college wrestling teams in search of physically fit women who may qualify.

On average, men are taller and heavier than women. They have stronger bones, ligaments and tendons, greater muscle mass, and better oxygen carrying capacity.

Women are approximately two-thirds as strong as men in the lower body and half as strong in the upper body.

There’s a reason men and women do not compete with each other in professional sports.

But even if there are women who qualify and surpass some male candidates, there’s much more to this than meeting physical criteria.

A study by the United States Marine Corps found that all-male teams performed significantly better than integrated teams in combat scenarios. They demonstrated more strength, endurance and mobility, hit more targets, and evacuated casualties faster.

Since women in combat are prone to injuries at double the rate of men, integrated units will invariably suffer from higher attrition, and increased evacuation efforts will also take their toll. A significant increase in disability compensation for injured women veterans is also a consequence to consider.

Unit cohesiveness – the tight bond between soldiers – is key to success in battle.

I have witnessed only a positive impact from gender integration in my squadron, but organizational culture of ground units requires a careful look.

If very few women end up in front-line units, a cost-benefit analysis may reveal that the screening process, and the additional logistical, regulatory and disciplinary costs, are simply not worth it.

The IDF seems to be campaigning in favor of integration, by projecting artificial conformism. The coed battalion model is portrayed as a staggering success, without supporting data. Soldiers and commanders unanimously claim during interviews that they have never witnessed any difference in performance between men and women.

IDF Spokesperson Brig.-Gen. Moti Almoz has been aggressively advocating integration, but his statements pertain to peripheral narratives and less to the practical and physical dimensions of the challenge. In a recent Facebook post, he referred to issues such as the effect gender integration will have on the IDF ethos, and the feelings of ambition, pride and service of young women.

These are, no doubt, exalted themes to be considered, but he neglected the most crucial aspect – the impact on operational effectiveness. He did stress that integration of women in tanks was being assessed in “routine security” battalions, and that no decisions would be made before thorough analysis.

Almoz reprimanded the public for voicing criticism without knowing all the facts. Then perhaps the IDF should release more facts.

An article published on the IDF website last year raised the question of whether “there soon will come a day when women will serve in front-line maneuvering combat units.”

The head of the IDF Gender Information Branch made it sound as if the only obstacles to full integration in combat units were misconceptions and outdated traditions.

The head of combat fitness in the Ground Forces Command said that despite physiological differences, “with proper training and suitable conditions, women could reach the same standards men do.”

“Suitable conditions” must hint to lowering standards, otherwise her comment doesn’t make sense.

Some argue that technological advancement makes modern warfare less physical.

This may be true in some fields, but not in direct combat. Soldiers must endure extremely challenging physical tasks in order to survive, save lives, and fulfill the mission. War is still a personal, physical, brutal clash between human beings, who overpower and kill each other, sometimes with their bare hands.

The IDF has been working for years on regulating integrated service, in an era when sexual harassment and sexual assault are taken very seriously, but are still a sad reality. The IDF also has a unique situation with Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox soldiers, who abide by strict rules of conduct relating to intimacy and modesty.

So integration in extreme, confined, close environments must be carefully considered.

It is a viable claim that integration may also have a positive effect on reducing sexual misconduct, as men will see women as members of the team, and not as secondary supporters.

Extreme physical duties aside, the IDF has much to gain by further incorporation of women. With decreasing recruitment and retention rates, integration broadens the pool of candidates and enables greater flexibility.

Coed brigades enable women to fulfill their desire to serve in operational units, while freeing more physically able men to front-line combat units.

Integration also diversifies and enriches the IDF with added talent and creativity.

Men and women are not only different physiologically, but psychologically.

I have witnessed women add whole new dimensions to staff and combat units alike.

Women counterparts and subordinates have opened my eyes to new ways of thinking, and made me a better professional, a better commander and a better person.

The key to effective teamwork is interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, productive communication, empathy, and empowering leadership. Women may not kick down doors as well as most men, but they definitely excel at these traits.

I believe that the campaign for inclusion in front-line combat units has a much deeper source, which is a reaction to our overly masculine subculture.

The IDF is extremely narrow-minded when it comes to promotion. Prominent generals are usually combat commanders who rose from elite units. My own service, the IAF, still wrongly assumes that only fighter pilots are qualified to lead.

Israel is steeped in a militaristic spirit and our macho culture effects all walks of life. If serving in a combat unit is the key to respect and an enabler for leadership, it is only natural that women aspire and demand to be included.

But perhaps instead of artificially forcing integration in specific occupations, we should change our male-macho-military culture instead.

In conclusion, there need be no gender criteria for any position, only standards set to allocate the best qualified individuals, and mechanisms to construct the best fighting teams.

Some jobs requiring extreme physical strength will naturally draw and accept few, if any, women. But the IDF must push for full gender integration in all other fields. Not for the sake of integration, but in order to become a better force.

The writer is a former IAF pilot and founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies Ltd.

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