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Facing outcry over gender gap, Army tweaks its new fitness test

U.S Army troops training to be instructors participate in the new Army combat fitness test at Fort Bragg, N.C., on Jan. 8, 2019. Army leaders are kicking out a requirement that soldiers do at least one leg tuck as part of the new fitness test. (Gerry Broome/AP)

The Army unveiled changes to its new fitness test on Monday, introducing plans to consider the performance of men and women separately for promotions as the military struggles to balance a desire to establish gender-blind standards and concerns about sidelining female troops.

The debut of the Army’s Combat Fitness Test (ACFT), which has been rolled out on a provisional basis since 2018, has been marred by outcry from lawmakers and service members who say its emphasis on upper-body strength could impair women’s career prospects and, potentially, exacerbate the military’s diversity problem.

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The test, the product of a decade of Army development, is designed to increase minimum fitness, decrease injury and ensure all soldiers are able to respond if they find themselves in combat. But it has produced a stark gender gap, most notably in one of the test’s six events: the leg tuck, which requires soldiers to hang from a pull-up bar before using their arms and core muscles to lift themselves up.

Of the female soldiers who had taken the test by the close of 2020, only 51 percent passed, compared to a 86 percent of male soldiers, according to Sgt. First Class William Reinier, an Army public affairs adviser. Some military women say the test overemphasizes strength over attributes such as leadership and could especially hurt enlisted women, whose fitness scores directly count toward promotion chances.

When the Army began allowing troops to temporarily substitute the plank for the leg tuck, women’s outcomes improved dramatically. Among Army Band members — a diverse group in terms of age and gender — the pass rate went from 14 percent to 96 percent with the plank. Under the adjustments announced this week, the plank option will become permanent.

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Although the Army is maintaining a single, gender-neutral scoring system for the test, it is tentatively planning to place men and women in separate performance tiers relative to their gender. Promotion boards, which no longer see the troops’ photos or names in an attempt to eliminate bias, will see only the soldier’s ranking — gold or silver tier, for example — not their raw score.

The Army’s approach to fitness adds to the military’s ongoing debate about how to make the military a lethal fighting force and also improve its poor record of diversity, a debate that has been especially acute surrounding access to elite units. Women represent about 16 percent of the military but are underrepresented in combat jobs and in the military’s highest ranks.

With the tweaks to its fitness test, the Army is hoping to signal its commitment to consistent service-wide standards and avoid compounding the challenges facing women in uniform.

“We will look at the application of a gender-neutral score to a personnel system as appropriate . . . to make sure that we acknowledge that there is a biological difference, a gender difference between men and women,” Maj. Gen. Lonnie Hibbard, head of the Army’s Center for Initial Military Training, told reporters.