Cover: Establishing Gender-Neutral Physical Standards for Ground Combat Occupations

Establishing Gender-Neutral Physical Standards for Ground Combat Occupations

Volume 1. A Review of Best-Practice Methods

Published Jun 19, 2018

by Chaitra M. Hardison, Susan D. Hosek, Chloe E. Bird

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Research Questions

  1. What is the process of establishing gender-neutral physical standards for a specific military occupation?
  2. What types of technical expertise are required to design studies in support of that process?
  3. What are key methodological considerations that should be addressed by experts conducting these studies?

Since the establishment of the all-volunteer force in 1973, representation of women in the U.S. military has risen to 15 percent, and an increasing number of military occupations have been opened to them. On January 24, 2013, the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) announced that the last remaining policy restricting the service of women, the direct ground combat exclusion rule, would be rescinded. With this policy change, women can serve in any occupation and assignment for which they can meet the occupational standards. However, prior to allowing ground combat jobs to be opened to women, the SecDef also directed the military services to validate their occupational standards to ensure they appropriately reflect occupational requirements and are gender neutral.

This report describes the best-practice methodologies for establishing gender-neutral standards for physically demanding jobs as consisting of six stages. Well-established professional guidelines for study designs, methods, analyses, and data considerations are discussed in detail for each of the six stages and key methodological considerations at each stage are identified.

Key Findings

  • The methods for establishing physical standards for specific occupations can be described as consisting of a six-stage process.
  • The first four stages contribute to the initial development of the standards — the tests and minimum test scores that will be employed in selecting among applicants for entry into an occupation or among job incumbents for continuation in the job.
  • The last two stages of the six-stage process focus on implementation and sustainment. The last stage, supporting and updating the standards over time, should be an ongoing effort.
  • Each stage is essential for ensuring that the standards accurately reflect the physically demanding work in an occupation, measure physical capabilities needed to carry out that work, and are set at the right level for successful performance on the job.
  • Attention to a wide variety of technical methodological issues at each stage in the process is crucial for ensuring that the resulting standards are valid and fair.
  • Establishing and validating standards is a complex process that requires multiple lines of research. No single research study can address all relevant issues. Amassing evidence to support a standard should be an ongoing effort.


  • We stress the importance of documenting the methods used at each stage to develop, implement, monitor, and update occupation-specific physical standards. Documentation is essential to defending the appropriateness and unbiased nature of the standards.
  • The complex technical details of the six-stage process are determined based on the specific characteristics of the occupation, the environment, and any unique statistical needs or other issues encountered by the analysts.
  • Carrying out the work requires expertise in a variety of domains, including industrial and organizational psychology, exercise physiology or a related field, psychometrics, and statistics. These experts rely on the expertise of subject-matter experts from the occupation, who must be carefully selected to cover all types of work and environments, and on appropriate test subjects drawn from the population of applicants, trainees, and job incumbents.

The research is sponsored by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and conducted within the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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