I joined the Marine Corps in 1995 – after a failed winter attempt to summit the Grand Teton in Wyoming. Our team climbed to 11,000 feet before bad weather forced us to hunker down. Forty-eight hours later, we retreated in the face of extreme avalanche conditions. Our team belonged to the Ohio State University mountaineering club, where one-third of the members were women.
My early climbing heroes included Catherine Desteville, the first woman to solo the Eiger’s north face, and Lynn Hill, who completed the first free ascent of the Nose on El Capitan in 1993. Hill’s accomplishment, in particular, cannot be overstated. Many thought the Nose was unclimbable, yet Hill completed the route in four days. Today, she is known as one of the world’s best climbers.
From an early age, I knew that women could “hack it” in the backcountry. Many of my female colleagues could climb harder routes than most men, and I respected them for it. These women built mental and physical toughness by challenging themselves in extreme conditions and willing themselves past perceived limits. Therefore, it was a shock when I arrived at my first infantry battalion in 1996, a unit that seemed to be fueled in part by snuff, pornography and a heavy dose of misogyny. It was clear that many of my brother Marines did not consider women as peers – and their pejorative view extended to women serving in the Corps.
The Marine Corps is the only service that trains men and women separately at boot camp and gender bias within the Corps is systemic – fostered by double standards. For decades, the Corps has recruited women under lower standards and trained them to lower expectations. These gender-normed standards undermine the achievements of all women – especially those who can outperform men. Male Marines are expected to do more pull ups and run faster than women to achieve maximum scores, and consequently many view the accomplishments of women pejoratively.
The Corps’ systemic gender bias is most visible in the initial rifle marksmanship training at boot camp. The Corps places a premium on marksmanship and holds Marines who achieve expert qualifications in higher regard. One of the Corps’ iconic mottos is, “every Marine is a rifleman.” Ironically, the Corps has deployed women to combat for the past 14 years while failing to train them as well as men. Women were first allowed to shoot the M-16 at boot camp in 1986, and women have underperformed men on their initial qualification pass rate by more than 20 percentage points for decades. The leadership simply expected women to underperform and accepted the status quo. There are no biological differences between men and women in marksmanship. The only reasons for female underperformance in marksmanship are inferior training and what’s known as the Golem Effect, in which lower expectations lead to lower performance.
There are many parallels between mountaineering and the infantry. While the goal of each endeavor is vastly different – summiting a mountain versus killing the enemy –similarities exist, including a premium on endurance and strength, heavy loads, austere conditions, constant risk management, strategic planning, tactical execution, small unit leadership, and courage in the face of severe injury or death.
My wife, Lt. Col. Kate Germano, and I returned to the Grand Teton in August to finish the summit attempt I began in 1995. We hired a mountaineering guide to refresh our training and lead the route. During our time in the Tetons, we encountered many superb guides and found their culture to be inclusive. In fact, 20 percent of guides we encountered were women. We were impressed by the group dynamics and compared this with our experiences as Marines. Most notably, and in stark contrast to our military experiences, gender differences among the guides were trivial—secondary to a culture of ability, courage and respect. Each guide hauled the same load, shared the same risks, and led with confidence.
For nearly two centuries, mountaineering was an all-male bastion. Nineteenth century physicians warned that altitude and the vigorous nature of climbing could damage the uterus. Despite this, women began to climb and claim the title mountaineer. Today, it is common for women to summit major peaks – like expedition leader Melissa Arnot who has summited Everest five times. Fully 10 percent of the American Mountain Guide Association’s highest certified guides are women, and women comprise 25 percent of their total membership.
Today, the American military is experiencing a major cultural shift. In January 2013, the Secretary of Defense rescinded the rule restricting women from serving in direct combat units and jobs, and directed the military to develop an implementation plan. On Dec. 3, 2015, he directed the military to remove all barriers to service and open all jobs to women who can meet prescribed standards. His decision overrode the recommendation of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who advocated for the continued discrimination against women based on sex.
The Marine Corps, in particular, is struggling to implement this new policy.
So what could the Corps learn from the mountaineers? Quite a bit.
First, the Corps should significantly improve efforts to recruit women and strive to build a culture of greater inclusivity. Marine recruiters should focus on female athletes and women who are active in outdoor pursuits, then tailor their recruiting pitches to appeal to the motivations of women who like seeking out adventure. The current one-size fits all recruiting campaign is insufficient. Climbers self-select their affiliations based on goals and perceived values. Similarly, strong women will self-identify with the Corps’ elite nature if the Corps communicates that women are welcome to compete.
Second, the Corps should desegregate training at boot camp. Status in the mountaineering community is based on performance and achievement regardless of gender. The current practice of sequestering women during initial training imprints upon male recruits that their female counterparts are “the other” and are less capable and less worthy of membership in the organization. It is important for men to train alongside women and see women accomplishing the same physical challenges. Consequently, it is important for men and women to compete against each other. Men and women should be integrated during task-based aspects of recruit training to foster teamwork, build trust, and prepare recruits for the integrated environment of the operating forces.
Third, the Corps should eliminate all gender-normed standards. Double standards undercut the legitimacy of women – especially those who can outperform men. By establishing common of standards of performance, all Marines could be evaluated by common criteria. With a physical fitness baseline and the establishment of science-based job standards, the Corps could then ensure its most physically fit Marines are assigned to its most physically demanding jobs. Evidence in mountaineering and the more ubiquitous Cross-Fit communities demonstrate that women can develop requisite upper body strength when properly trained.
Culture is a critical factor in team performance. A recent Marine Corps-commissioned RAND study stated that group cohesion is dependent upon the level of trust each member has in the other members of the team. Whether belaying a leader on a wickedly exposed face, or providing overwatch on a combat patrol, it is imperative that all members of a team are confident in each other’s abilities and motivations. The RAND study also determined that leadership is essential in building cohesion and that the key drivers are respect and fairness.
The Corps should fully embrace the opening of all combat jobs to women. Senior leadership should set the expectation that qualified women are welcome in every unit and every job throughout the force. Anything less than a fully committed leadership effort will lead to less than optimal results. The conditions are finally set for the military to leverage the full talent of both genders. The only question now is whether the Corps will seize this opportunity or begrudgingly and half-heartedly stumble into the future.
Joe Plenzler is a retired Marine Corps infantry and public affairs officer. He was an adviser to the commandant of the Marine Corps for five of his 20 years on active duty. He and his active-duty Marine wife, Lt. Col. Kate Germano, recently summited the Grand Teton (13,775’) in August.