Sunday, 5 January 2014

Can we really have equality?

Maybe I just haven’t understood the concept of equality.

I can’t believe that it’s been over a year (September 2012, to be precise) since this story made me angry:

Yes, it does happen that a woman is unaware of being pregnant. This soldier was “said to have passed fitness tests and training, including an eight-mile run with a 25lb backpack”. You’re tested for drugs and for AIDS and I don’t know what else. But it says in the article that “Forces can’t insist on pregnancy tests.” Why ever not? Because it would be discriminatory – as it only affects women? Such stupidity. They’d rather put a mother and her baby at risk than acknowledge that there are differences that have to be dealt with rather than ignored. A pregnant woman doesn’t belong on the frontline.

They flew out specialist medical staff, and later flew the baby to its Grandma – all at the taxpayer’s expense – so that the mother could return to duty. I’m sure it will have made a welcome change for the medical teams – but, imagine, there had been complications. (Do they have incubators in Camp Bastion?) Or a fight, or an explosion somewhere and not all medics available …

It then went all quiet in the media.

Fast forward to November 2013:

You will all have heard of the three female RAF reservists who have been awarded compensation for allegedly having been made to extend the length of their strides beyond what is recommended for women. (I'm not addressing here the issue of whether or not guidelines weren't adhered to and why those women have left it so long to complain - that will be the topic of another article.)

Is it not maybe time to acknowledge that we can’t have equality? (I’m obviously not an HR person.)

Physiologically, men and women are different. On average (statistically), women can’t build as much muscle mass as men. Constant over-striding can, indeed, damage hip ligaments in women. The Military (maybe I should say the MoD), has taken this into account when they introduced separate guidelines – and the below are just a couple of examples I could easily get hold of:

  • The length of stride for women is 28”, for men it is 30”. (Following the above compensation ruling, the RAF have now reduced the guidelines for women to 27”.)
  • During the Army Officer fitness tests, women are expected to perform 21 press-ups in two minutes, men 44.
Now, one could argue that the test merely does what it says on the tin – assessing a person’s fitness. So what? And does the length of stride matter – unless you’re on the parade ground? You’re hardly “marching” on patrol. I have closely watched a few military bands marching and have honestly wondered why there  doesn't  seem to be a minimum body height. The women among them can only have been over-striding – otherwise they would fall behind. (And one rather short veteran reported how he was regularly “running” more than "marching” because otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to keep up. And a few tall guys have struggled with shortening their length of stride below what was comfortable for them. So this isn't just an issue "men vs. women".)

On a practical level: How is a parade going to work with potentially three different stride lengths?

Someone once told me that everybody in the Armed Forces needs to maintain a high level of fitness as they all have to be deployable at short notice, should the need arise. (Yes, in practice, some might lack behind …) Everybody needs to be able to fire a gun, if necessary, and therefore perform to certain minimum standard. Everybody needs to be able to run, carry heavy loads and duck for cover – without months of preparation once you’re past initial training.

Am I wrong - is this “merely” an HR issue?

Should we not simply acknowledge that we’re all different and employ every individual according to their strengths (and weaknesses)? I’m sure that there are plenty of situations when you’ve made such decisions anyway. You will have chosen the tallest or the shortest or the fastest … the calmest or the most alert … and there’s huge benefit in us all being different.

But the Military isn’t a working environment like any other. If you’ve lost your best man / woman, then everybody else needs to step in. Specialism aside - whoever is the “last man standing”, needs to be able to do what needs doing – load a shell, carry a comrade … And whatever these tasks are that everybody has to be able to perform needs to be reflected in assessments and standards.

I once asked a medically discharged veteran why not more wounded are being retained – for example, in education and training, in selection, in training development. Surely their experience must be very valuable. He didn’t know the answer. Is this a about fitness standards?

Or is this about our “image” of what a soldier (sailor / airman) should be like?
I once saw on television a PE instructor of the US Army with only one hand. He couldn’t have done all the exercises he was assessing, but nobody would have doubted that he’s the right man for the job. Are we struggling to take equality (difference) seriously because of some ancient image of a “man in uniform”? (Women still aren’t eligible for every role in the Forces – that they can't serve on submarines is not due to physiological differences, not to mention the fact that they are exempt from frontline combat.)
So, by definition, we don’t have equality anyway. What we have is a mess of not dealing properly with difference.

And then I made the mistake to go on the website of the German Army. They don’t publish all their assessment criteria, but I found something else: They have different categories of fitness for service. For example, you can join but forever be exempt from riding on a tank if you have back problems.*) (I also know of a British soldier who – after he had developed a condition - was allowed to deploy but couldn’t go on patrol. Apart from the associated management and planning issues – it’s highly demoralising. You’re still part – and yet you’re not.)

And a fairly recent change to the law in Germany means that anybody who gets injured in service – no matter how long he (or she) would have been serving - is entitled to lifelong employment with the Bundeswehr. (See my yesterday’s post.)

Now, for the foreseeable future, the German Forces won’t enter into open combat**) – they provide medical teams and help during the reconstruction. But the UK Military is constantly deploying somewhere – and they are shrinking. How much flexibility can they afford? Conversely, how “equal” do our soldiers need to be?

And one final thought:

I remember having read something about the Israeli Army years ago – they were among the first to recruit women. And they seem to have come to regret it. “Women and children first” seems to be a natural instinct and there is evidence that is has led to men (male soldiers) risk their lives and go against orders in attempts to protect female comrades.

My answer remains:

I don’t think we can have equality – not in society; certainly not in the Military.

So – rather than pretend it was otherwise:

  • How much difference can be allowed, and how can we find a better way to deal with differences?
  • How can standards be set – adhered to and reviewed – that reflect the requirements of the job (and not answer to political agendas)?
And, finally:
  • Should exceptions be made? And for whom?

Your answers?


*) This is from an unofficial website not hosted by the Bundeswehr -
**) Unless by accident – as happened to the soldier described in my yesterday’s post.

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