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

Establishing Gender-Neutral Physical Standards for Ground Combat Occupations

Volume 2. A Review of the Military Services' Methods

Published Jun 19, 2018

by Chaitra M. Hardison, Susan D. Hosek, Anna Rosefsky Saavedra

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Research Questions

  1. What approaches did the services take to establishing gender-neutral standards?
  2. How closely do those align to the best practices described in Volume 1?
  3. How do the services' approaches differ from each other, and is this a concern?
  4. What are some of the limitations to the approaches undertaken by each service, and what additional research should the services undertake in the future to address those limitations?

In January 2013, the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff announced rescission of the 1994 Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule, which restricted assignments of women to occupational assignments or positions in or collocated with direct ground combat units. After the decision to eliminate the rule, the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act directed establishment of gender-neutral and valid physical standards prior to opening any of the restricted occupations to women and gave the services until October 2015 to demonstrate that such standards were in place.

The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness asked RAND to help it understand how to evaluate job-specific physical requirements and establish gender-neutral standards for physically demanding jobs. Our study addressed two research objectives. The first was to describe best-practice methodologies for establishing gender-neutral standards for physically demanding jobs, tailored to address the needs of the military. The second was to review and evaluate the methodologies being used by the services to set gender-neutral standards.

This report (Volume 2) provides the results of work toward the second research objective, using the best-practice methodology described in Volume 1 of this study as a framework. The review began in 2013, as the services planned their efforts, and ended in April 2015, about six months prior to the 2015 deadline and before the services had completed the final stages of their work. Volume 1 offers detailed explanations of terms used in this report.

Key Findings

  • Each service conceived of its physical screening in a slightly different way, and, as a result, the work to validate the physical screening processes varied in focus.
  • The Army and Marine Corps work for ground combat occupations (i.e., the effort not focused on the special operations occupations) and the Air Force's efforts for its special operations occupations were designed specifically to establish gender-neutral standards for selection into these occupations at entry.
  • The work by the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps for their special operations occupations focused most heavily on validating the training content and did not validate the use of physical screening for top-down selection prior to entering training.
  • The Army's combat arms effort (i.e., the effort not focused on the special operations occupations) and Air Force's battlefield airman effort generally pursued methodologies that were well suited to addressing the first four stages of our recommended six-stage process. While the services' efforts to address the remaining occupations (specifically Navy and Army special operations occupations and both the Marine Corps' combat arms and special operations occupations) have marshaled various forms of support for their screening process, some of that support is—to varying degrees—less definitive than that of the Army's combat arms effort and Air Force's battlefield airman effort.


  • Ongoing research is a critical step in setting the best standards, so the public and the Office of the Secretary of Defense should expect to see the services continue to investigate the validity of their standards long after implementation.
  • It is legitimate for the military services to continue to make adjustments to the standards informed by that ongoing research and as new information comes to light over time. Continued changes and adjustments to the standards should be not only expected, but also encouraged as more information is amassed.
  • Applicants and applicant qualifications likely will change as people adjust to the opening of the positions and it becomes a more accepted career path for women. As women become interested, they will undoubtedly begin to prepare in earnest to meet the physical demands. As a result, we recommend continuing to collect data on the validity of the screening criteria and alternative measures on samples of both men and women applicants and incumbents in the years following the opening of the positions.

This research was conducted by the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute.

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