Three female Marine veterans are arguing that keeping the genders segregated at boot camp “reinforces negative stereotypes” about the performance of females and treats them as outsiders, which makes them weak and sick.
In an op-ed published Sunday to the military blog Task & Purpose, Kate Hendricks Thomas, Kate Germano and Charlotte Brock made the case that what happens in boot camp, specifically segregation, is so powerful that it scars women’s mental health not only for the rest of their time in the service, but also when they leave the service.
The authors rely mainly on the concept of “stereotype threat” to justify an end to gender segregation in boot camp.
The idea of stereotype threat is that negative stereotypes about a group of people in effect cause that group of people to perform in alignment with said stereotypes.
“From classrooms to combat, performance improves alongside increased expectations,” the authors argue. “The inverse is true of negative expectations: Low expectations result in lowered performance.”
As such, the authors maintain that physiology is not nearly as important as recruiting and training when it comes to explaining why just one of seven women so far have made it past performance tests to combat arms.
“From the moment female recruits enter Marine boot camp, they are trained to a lower standard,” the authors note. “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.”
Apart from stereotype threat is the allegation that the Marine Corps isn’t recruiting strong enough women, which in turn reinforces the idea that women are weak performers who have trouble even meeting female standards.
While this might support the argument that women should be segregated, for the authors, segregation itself “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.”
Although among the public stereotype threat has become one of the most well-known terms in psychology, the evidence for this phenomenon is incredibly scant. A meta-analysis conducted in 2015 found that in terms of female performance on subjects like math, science, and spatial reasoning, the actual effect of stereotype threat is little different from zero.
Additionally, despite the fact that the authors downplay the importance of physiology, research indicates that males are uniquely selected for combat performance. Notably, males have greater upper body strength, taller bodies, heavier bodies, faster reaction times, more accurate throwing, stronger bones, greater bone density, easier heat dissipation, larger sweat capacity, broader shoulders, greater resistance to dehydration, larger lung capacity and thicker skin, among other advantages.
Since Secretary of Defense Ash Carter decided to open up all combat roles to women in December, the debate has raged over gender segregation in the rigorous Marine Corps boot camp.
After heated back-and-forth exchanges between Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, and top-level Marine Corps officials, Mabus in April allowed the Marine Corps to keep boot camp segregated–at least for now.
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