The Army is rolling out a new fitness test: Will it hold back women?
By MISSY RYAN | The Washington Post | Published: September 24, 2020
An Army initiative to create a stronger, fitter fighting force has yielded a dramatic gender gap, raising questions about whether the service unintentionally might compound barriers for women trying to move up the ranks.
Recent Army figures show that 54% of female soldiers failed the new Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT), which is being rolled out on a provisional basis, compared with 7% of men during the second quarter of 2020.
That reflects a significant improvement over last year, when leaked data showed that more than 80% of a smaller cohort of female test-takers failed the six-event exam. But some women fear they won’t be able to pass even with additional training or will continue to get lower scores than men, potentially affecting their career prospects in an institution already struggling to shed historical gender and racial disparities.
The test, which will become the service’s official fitness test next month, has prompted a broader debate over whether the service’s focus on fitness and strength will elevate physical prowess over other qualities, such as effective and ethical leadership, or make it harder to retain troops with skills needed in an era of high-tech military competition.
Army officials say the new age- and gender-blind fitness test, the first of its kind in the U.S. military, was developed to reduce injuries and to prepare soldiers better for the demands of fighting, expressing confidence that training will help female troops eventually meet the new standards.
Officials also say the test might be modified before results are incorporated into soldiers’ evaluations, likely in 2022, when it could begin to affect promotions and future assignments.
“Combat is age- and gender-neutral,” said Maj. Gen. Lonnie Hibbard, commanding general of the Army’s Center for Initial Military Training (CIMT), which designed the new test. “And so regardless of your gender or, more importantly, your [military profession], we have to ensure that everybody is prepared for combat.”
The performance imbalance is rooted primarily in one of the test’s six events, the leg tuck, which requires troops to hang from a pull-up bar with their arms extended before lifting themselves up using abdominal and arm muscles.
Soldiers must pass all six events, which also include carrying kettlebells and dragging sleds across a field, throwing a 10-pound ball backward over their heads, performing hand-release push-ups and completing a 2-mile run. The Army’s previous test required troops to do only sit-ups, push-ups and a 2-mile run, and was adjusted for age and gender.
One female soldier, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of damaging her career, said she attained high scores on the old test. But despite years of exercising to enhance her upper-body strength, including during periods of intense workouts on overseas deployments, she remains unable to do even a single pull-up or leg tuck. “I can’t even start to flex” upward, she said.
The soldier, who had a baby this year, said she worries the increased emphasis on muscular strength eventually will lead her and other women to leave the military earlier than planned.
“You’re not going to have a lot of females make it to the top,” she said.
While women now represent about 15% of Army personnel, they remain a small minority among the top enlisted and officer ranks, as they do in other services. A recent government watchdog report found that women are likely to leave the military earlier than men do and said Pentagon leaders lack adequate plans to integrate women.
The ACFT, whose rollout has been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, is one visible manifestation of the military’s push to increase “lethality” across the force, which has become a hallmark at the Pentagon in recent years.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, who served as Army secretary until 2019, has championed the test. A physical training, or PT, enthusiast, Esper often has joined troops for their early-morning fitness sessions when visiting military facilities across the country.
“If you can’t pass the Army Combat Fitness Test, then there’s probably not a spot for you in the Army,” he said after plans for it were unveiled in 2018.
More importantly, officials say, nearly 20 years of insurgent warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan revealed a mismatch between the Army’s previous way of training for and testing physical fitness and the realities of modern combat. That disconnect resulted in frequent injuries, which were costly for individual service members and the military.
Army officials say the new test, the product of seven years of work by a team of Army officials and scientists at the CIMT, is designed to simulate aspects of combat, such as dodging enemy fire or dragging a wounded comrade across a field. Those tasks are important not just for soldiers dispatched to the front lines, but also for support troops who also might come under attack.
The vast majority of soldiers now have taken the test at least once.
Under the proposed system, troops would have to pass the test to enter and remain in the Army, but the standards would differ according to military profession. An infantry or artillery soldier, for example, would be required to do more leg tucks than someone working in logistics or aircraft maintenance. Within those three tiers designated by military profession, soldiers receive a higher or lower score based on their performance.
That makes it all the more challenging for women who choose to go into jobs categorized as “heavy physical demand,” such as combat engineers, a male-dominated field that requires troops to lug heavy gear and to navigate obstacles, sometimes under fire. Since 2015, when the Pentagon opened all combat roles to women, female troops have been able to compete for combat positions if they can meet entry standards. In practice, the number of women in previously closed combat jobs remains small.
One female officer described taking the test last summer before she became pregnant with her first child. Even then, when she was in top shape, the most she could do was one leg tuck — short of the three-tuck standard the Army is expected to require for her profession.
“I could do enough to be in the Army, but not enough to be an engineer,” she said.
Another event that could pose a challenge for women, who tend to weigh less than men, is the dead lift, meaning they might be lifting a weight that is heavier relative to their body mass. Troops whose jobs put them in the least-demanding of the test’s three difficulty categories, including dentists or public affairs specialists, must dead lift a minimum of 140 pounds three times. They receive additional points for lifting more.
In response to women’s high failure rate to date, the Army temporarily is allowing troops who cannot complete a leg tuck to do a two-minute plank instead.
“What we’re really trying to figure out is how do you incentivize excellence in improving physical fitness without adversely impacting any demographic negatively within the Army,” Hibbard said.
Officials say they are analyzing evolving data on female performance and expect the statistics to improve. In two recent basic training classes, 100% of the women passed, Hibbard said.
Some female troops say they believe that more rigorous standards are overdue, especially for career fields that are the most physically demanding, such as infantry.
One female soldier said the previous version was too easy. While she failed the test last fall and still can’t do a leg tuck, she has been using a pull-up assist machine to train and said she’s close.
“If you’re serious about staying in the military, you’ve got to work on it,” she said.
But for those who can’t meet the minimum standard or who pass but score significantly lower than men, the test could affect their careers. That could occur most directly for enlisted personnel, whose fitness scores have long counted toward their promotion via a points system. Army officials say it has not been decided whether the new test will be used in the same way for enlisted personnel once it is finalized.
For commissioned officers, physical fitness scores aren’t used formally by promotion boards. But soldiers say the results can be taken into account informally when officers are being considered for coveted roles, such as placement in the 82nd Airborne Division, that are more likely to open career paths leading to the most senior ranks.
“They would absolutely want to know if I’m a PT stud and if I can keep up. And if the answer is, ‘Well, she passes,’ that is not the answer they’re looking for,” the female officer said. For officers, she said, “it’s way more subtle.”
While the Marine Corps has higher standards for pull-ups on its gender- and age-adjusted physical fitness test, requiring 26- to 30-year-old women to do a minimum of four, it gives troops the option to do push-ups instead, even though that alternative assigns them a lower score. Since the event was introduced in 2017, 67% of female Marines have chosen to do pull-ups.
The Navy and the Air Force do not require pull-ups for female or male troops.
“It certainly seems the Army is prioritizing an outdated measure of soldier quality,” said Emma Moore, a scholar at the Center for a New American Security who has written about what she calls the service’s “cult of fitness.” While baseline physical fitness is important, Moore said, the use of such tests as a filter for retention and promotion “leads to repercussions that can arbitrarily hold women back.”
Female and male soldiers say the Army has been slow to adapt its mandatory group-exercise programs and to provide specialized training equipment for the new test. Officials say that gear is now being pushed out to every unit of 10 or more people and that daily workouts are being adjusted.
Some soldiers also have questioned the shift to an age-blind test, saying that many troops older than 35 have chronic injuries from years of deployments and carrying heavy gear, in addition to the changes that come with age. That also might affect women disproportionately. According to the Army, 20% of male soldiers about age 40 are unable to take the previous test because of an injury; the same is true for 46% of female soldiers.
To address concerns of female soldiers who recently have given birth or plan to become pregnant, the Army is working on new fitness regulations for postpartum soldiers. In the meantime, soldiers have 180 days after giving birth to take the test, which some women say has compounded their concerns about the leg tuck, because pregnancy and C-sections strain the abdominal area.
Troops can seek physician-approved exemptions allowing them to postpone taking the test after giving birth, like they can for other medical reasons. But if they seek repeated exemptions, they can be pushed out of the Army.