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Marines Hope To Determine Gender Neutral Standards For Ground Combat

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

To learn more about the research behind this experimental unit, we turn to Katelyn Allison. She's a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. She's part of the team studying this group. Welcome to the program.

KATELYN ALLISON: Thank you very much, and thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So help us better understand the goal of this research. Is it to understand what it physically takes to do any given combat job? Or is it to understand whether or not women can perform comparably to men in those jobs?

ALLISON: It's a little bit of both of those aspects. When we're looking at this research in general, this is sort of a groundbreaking initiative since women have never been afforded the opportunity to be in these combat roles previously. So we are aiming to look at the - sort of the gender-neutral characteristics that would make any Marine successful in these ground combat units. And as a secondary aim - looking to see more specifically what are the capabilities of women to fill these roles.

CORNISH: So can you give us some examples of how this can be studied, like a particular exercise, say, that you've observed?

ALLISON: Sure. So for instance, watching somebody hike carrying a heavy load, watching somebody get over an obstacle, watching somebody lift a very heavy piece of ammo - 60 to 80 pounds - and raising it to maybe their chest level or above head. Those are some activities that would give us an indication of what the requirements might be.

CORNISH: And so, for example, the amount of weight required in some cases for women, say, on one of these hikes, given all that you have to carry, might be as much as her body weight, right?

ALLISON: Sure. So the load carriage is a great example because it's a similar weight across everybody that has to complete the task. So if you're of smaller stature, you're carrying a larger percentage of your body weight and in some cases probably even more than your body weight. So that creates implications for loading on certain areas of your body and efficiency of movement and things like that.

CORNISH: What's your response to critics who are looking at this experiment and saying that this is just going to encourage a lightening of the physical standards?

ALLISON: I believe the goal is not to lighten the standards. The stress of combat and the intensity of combat is not going to change. So the standards are not going to change. It's assessing basically what are the standards and what are the characteristics that any Marine, male or female, would need to have in order to successfully complete those standards.

CORNISH: But at least a third of the women in infantry training have dropped out, and there's still much more training to go. I mean, what does that signal?

ALLISON: I think that would signal to me that perhaps this will help guide future decisions and future recommendations based on what we're noticing. I think as this unfolds I think it's a big learning experience and that all of the outcomes, including the one you just mentioned about the female attrition, is going to likely be very useful to help guide perhaps the future and the outcomes of the whole study. It's all going to be taken into consideration.

CORNISH: So could the research basically point to positions or abilities that favor women's body structure?

ALLISON: Sure. There might be a potential that once we look at all the characteristics there might be some characteristics that may be favorable inhabiting smaller spaces and finite movements perhaps, but those are things that we'll be able to ascertain sort of at the end of this when we look at all the data globally.

CORNISH: You study the human body and exercise science outside of the military. What has surprised you about this kind of research now? I mean, how's it forced you to look at the body differently, look at gender differences differently?

ALLISON: Sure. So one of the biggest examples I can give is that our lab traditionally was rooted in athletics. And when you're looking at gender specific to athletics, men and women perform in different leagues and on different teams. They're never competing with each other or against each other whereas in the military everybody is on the same team, and there's the same task and same goal at the end of the day. So it's really nice to see the camaraderie and the enthusiasm going into this that, you know, everybody is on the same team. And looking at it from that angle that - you know, we're looking at gender-neutral standards. We're not looking to female norms or male norms. It's just one standard.

CORNISH: That's Katelyn Allison, professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

ALLISON: Sure. Thank you again for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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