Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Incentives Matter: Women and Pull-Ups

The Issue

The Marine Corps currently allows female Marines when taking their Physical Fitness Test (PFT) to choose between the flexed-arm hang and pull-ups, each selection providing a possible 100 points.  The current policy creates an incentive for women to stick with the flexed-arm hang because it is easier to achieve a higher score than doing pull-ups.  If we continue to present both options as weighted equally, women will have little incentive to get up on the bar and learn how to do a pull-up.  Since we are in a period of transition as we open the ground combat arms to women; it may be appropriate to maintain the flexed-arm hang alongside pull-ups.  However, we should do so in a way that gives women an incentive to do pull-ups, not continue with the flexed-arm hang. 

Providing the choice between two equally weighted options is antithetical to our culture because it encourages an attitude of and eventual failure among females, especially those considering the combat arms.  Instead of being given a mission and expected to succeed, old stereotypes are reinforced and an attitude of seeking the lower of two denominators is encouraged.  Studies have shown a correlation between an ability to do a pull-up and certain combat tasks.  There is no correlation between getting a 100 on the flexed-arm hang and being able to lift a Mk-19 for mounting on a gun truck, or dragging a 180 lbs comrade out of a kill zone.

There will be nothing more destructive to the idea that women can do pull-ups than allowing them to choose between getting 100 points for a 70 second flexed-arm hang, and 100 points for 8 pull-ups.  If it remains easier to achieve a higher score on the PFT by exerting the same or less effort by allowing the flexed-arm hang, we create an incentive for women to stick with the flexed-arm hang.  As a result of societal myths regarding the “inability” of women to learn how to do pull-ups, creating this incentive is at the expense of a good faith encouragement to do pull-ups, and it will reinforce biases against women.  True or not, after letting the two tests exist side by side, with no incentive to attempt the pull-ups beyond personal satisfaction—and frankly speaking, pride—we may end up reinforcing the belief, whether one believes it or not, that women are biologically indisposed to do pull-ups.  When women are still not able to do pull-ups as a collective after a period of time with the option to do pull-ups, most who think women can't do pull-ups will point to this as evidence for their opinion.

We can do better.  We can provide a solution that creates an incentive to do pull-ups, while not overburdening the females in the Marine Corps, or new recruits. 

The Solution

There is an idea for a PFT floating around, where the 70 second flexed-arm hang will be worth a max of 60 points, but if choose to do pull-ups, the first pull-up is worth 65.  It is still a Marine’s choice test, the difference being that each pull-up is worth 5 points, like the male PFT, except for the first pull-up that will start the woman at 65 points, a higher score than the flexed-arm hang.   

This test structure is a common sense solution in the interim which addresses the current skewed incentive to female Marines.  It will encourage those who can’t get one pull-up to get to one pull-up so they can get a higher score than they would with the flexed-arm hang.  It is far less draconian than a sudden, unexpected all or nothing requirement.  In many ways it keeps faith with our standards, the policy objectives laid down by both Congress and the current Executive administration, and our Marines.  

If for one pull-up an individual gets more points than with a 70 second flexed-arm hang, women will move over to the pull-up standard to get those 5 extra points to remain competitive.  They will find a way.  They will adapt over time.  The current problem is not a biological inability to do pull-ups, it is a lack of knowledge of how to properly train and prepare for the PFT.  Most men have always been able to do a pull-up most of their lives.  Most women have never been able to do one, and so getting to one is probably daunting.  If the institution provides an unavoidable incentive to do that first pull-up, and units exercise appropriate leadership, and the males in those units show appropriate camaraderie and encouragement, i.e. help; within a year you’ll see most women doing one pull-up.

And once they have that one pull-up they will make two.

Does it sound harsh?  It is the easiest way to transition without sending mixed signals by establishing incentives that encourage continuation of the flexed-arm hang.  Will there be a dip in PFT scores?  Quite possibly, but the ship will right itself.  There can be a top down policy that establishes  a transition period of two years.  The policy will require promotion boards to take adjustment period into account, so long as “P/U” is somehow annotated next to a female’s lower than usual score (assuming it is lower than usual).  After two years, we can transition to the pull-up only standard.  If there is still an issue with new recruits at the Recruit Depots, then the policy can include a similar, maybe permanent incentive for junior enlisted who are not combat arms until they reach Corporal; the ability to do a pull-up being a requirement to make NCO.  Of course, pull ups should be a requirement to get into the Combat Arms.

What is best for our female Marines is to not create an incentive that maintains the status quo and encourages mediocrity.  What is best is giving them a difficult task, and trusting them to meet the standard.  This is the Marine Corps ethos.  We are a "force in readiness."  If we take our profession seriously, then we will encourage the sort of behaviors that will make Marines, regardless of their sex, combat ready.


  1. Solution, they want equality then do the exact same standards as the men, period. This is not equality it is only a smoke screen, it is the appearance of equality when it is far from equal. Entitled much? How can someone scream and shout about equality, but then sit back and complain about the standard for which something is earned? Oh, I see, all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others? It sounds to me like the women want something they don't have without having to do the same things the men have to do to earn the objective. Women want to do what we do then they can earn the right through the same standards the men do. In the most simplest of terms it is not anyone's right to be in the military, it is only our right to pursue service in the military. If someone does not meet the required standard then they don't get to join our nations military, our beloved Corps. There is one standard which has already been set by our brothers in arms, none of this crap about the first pull up counts for over half your pull up points. No cheats, no curves, no extra helpful aid. If the Corps is going to go through with this then they need to set a date and declare females must start training to meet the required standard the men have already been achieving. Do everything to the exact standard the men have already been, and are currently held to and if you can't ... good bye.

  2. I think this blog is right on. When I was 18, I had never done a pull-up in my life. Eventually I could do 20 in the PFT. Why? Because that's what the requirement was. I'd like to know whether the flex arm hang is really what women want to do or rather what senior ranking men want women confined to.

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  4. Daniel ONeill's rantastic comment ignores the obvious question of what sort of measure the pull-up really is. It's an arbitrary standard for measuring upper body strength, which is not uniformly used by the US armed forces, or by many of the premier military organizations throughout the world.

    And it hasn't always been around. The Marines who fought through Belleau Wood, across the Pacific and back from the Frozen Chosin? Nope, they never had to do a bunch of pullups to convince anyone that they should be sent into harm's way.

    The original USMC "Physical Readiness Test" (PRT) wasn't instituted until 1956 (MCO 6100.3) and pullups weren't part of the routine - chin-ups (forward grip) were mandatory, and 3 was the "satisfactory" score for a man (as were 25 situps in 2 minutes, and a half-mile jog with no time limit). Of course, one wonders how the modern Marine Corps makes it without the other signature events of the original PRT - the "duck waddle", the "broad jump", and the 440 yard dash. The push-up requirement? 21 - it seems Chesty was already getting his - and 15 squat-thrusts for good measure... And I'm sure there were plenty of Marines who bewailed the change when this test went the way of the dinosaur - "No more duck waddle? The Corp's going soft!"

    I've seen plenty of my female Marines who could easily exceed (and max out) the current female standards; but that was while deployed to Camp Bastion in a unit where we were pushing everyone to make the standard before the requirement was changed. Everyone was on the bar, a couple of times a day, 5 days a week, men and women. Returned to CONUS and found low PFT scores across the board for junior Marines, and many female Marines unable to complete the minimum. The reason? Poor leadership - Marines were not on the bars on a regular basis.

    The author is right that the current "incentive structure" is set up to encourage female Marines NOT to switch over to pull-ups, but he's wrong to say we just need to tweak the incentive structure, or that "most men have always been able to do a pull-up most of their lives" - many US men cannot - too fat, or too little muscle mass. He's also wrong to say that pull-ups should be a prerequisite for combat arms. In the history of warfighting, damn few enemy soldiers have been pull-up'd to death.

    A uniform, sensible standard for ALL Marines should be adopted, and one that is relevant to modern warfare. Or, we could always go back to the "duck waddle."