While the Marine Corps has long relied on the unverifiable theory that gender segregation at boot camp is necessary to build the confidence of female recruits and successfully train them, decades of data show that the Corps' model for training women is broken. The fact is that female recruits have underperformed for years in every graduation category, largely due to this segregation. If properly defined and executed, integration would increase the potential for females to meet the high standards for the infantry and other ground combat jobs, improve the caliber and number of female Marines in every job specialty, and improve the organization's culture by fostering a spirit of cooperation and competition across gender lines. The secretary of Defense has ordered the services to open all jobs and units to qualified women and the secretary of the Navy recently directed the Marine Corps to integrate recruit training as well. It is time to change, Here's why:
Separate is not equal
Recently, a retiring Marine general predicted that the integration of recruit training and the infantry will result in lower standards. However, female recruit graduation statistics for physical fitness, rifle range qualifications, academics and close-order drill clearly indicate that women have been held to lower standards for decades. This has been and is the Corps' status quo for women. While segregated boot camp does expose female recruits to female leaders, it also prevents them from learning from male drill instructors, many of whom have significant combat experience. On the dawn of integrating women into combat units, this type of tutoring and mentoring is priceless.
In this regard, segregation puts male recruits at a decided tactical advantage and fails to leverage the talent base of the drill instructors for the betterment of all recruits. Significantly, segregation enables senior male leaders to adopt a "hands off" approach to female performance issues and relegates responsibility solely to female officers and drill instructors. Segregation imprints the thought within male recruits that females are "the other" and perpetuates the false notion that they are less mentally and physically competent. Furthermore, segregation also leads male drill instructors and recruits to believe that females enjoy an easier boot camp experience and undermines the accomplishments of both the female recruits and their training staff. This is a dangerous practice that has damaged group cohesion and fostered demeaning stereotypes for female Marines.
Segregation has also limited training opportunities for women. For example, while there is no biological reason women should not be able to best men on the close order drill graduation requirement, there is an architectural reason that explains their underperformance. The female recruit compound at Parris Island was constructed to allow women to march in platoons through the passageways from their barracks to their classrooms, yet the passageways are too narrow to allow them to march with their rifles.
Male compounds, on the other hand, are open in design and allow for male platoons to march with their rifles to and from the barracks, classrooms and dining facilities, practicing close order drill along the way. This gives male platoons hours more practice marching, drilling and handling weapons handling. Integration would provide female recruits greater opportunity to practice marching, drill, and weapons handling, increasing their upper body strength and confidence with their weapons as a result. This would make them more competitive with the male platoons both in drill and on the rifle range. To anyone familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s concept of "10,000 hours to greatness" will understand the simple logic here.
Clear expectations allow for relative ease in accomplishment
The desegregation of boot camp should be relatively easy to achieve provided that leadership clearly communicates expectations for integration. Some misguided critics assume that integration would require female and male recruits to live in the same squad bays, and shower and sleep together; this is both ridiculous and unnecessary. The fact is that over the past 30 thirty years, the tide of integration at Parris Island has ebbed and flowed in keeping with the priorities of the leadership. In the late 1990s, many training events were integrated, including the physical fitness test, conditioning hikes and classroom instruction. Integrated training enabled recruits to compete against one another and witness both male and female role models. It fostered a spirit of cooperation necessary for unit cohesion and winning battles.
Organizational change is hard. But reverting back to a level of increased integration could be accomplished easily with little disruption to the depot's organization or training schedule. Following the successful model from the 1990s, the most logical approach to permanently integrating recruit training is to implement the change in phases, first by integrating actual training-schedule events so that female platoons train shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts.
In this initial phase, female recruit units could maintain an all-female staff and continue to live in the female recruit compound. Following breakfast, female platoons could join male recruits for the execution of the day's training schedule. This change would only require additional transition time in the training schedule for the female recruits to march with their weapons from their compound to the consolidated academics facility, training area or physical fitness field. Greater organizational integration could then be implemented in follow-on phases in a common-sense, well-designed manner, and should include eliminating gender normed physical fitness tests.
Artificial constraints limit growth
Currently, the number of enlisted women entering the Marine Corps each year is artificially constrained by throughput capacity of the 4th Recruit Training Battalion based on berthing limitations. In a later phase of integration, the Corps should disband the 4th Recruit Training Battalion and create integrated battalions. Each of the male recruit training battalions aboard Parris Island now currently consists of three training companies and a headquarters company. Under an integrated construct, the all-male battalions could be reconfigured with two male training companies, one female training company and a headquarters company.
In this later phase of integration, female drill instructors for female recruits would enable same-sex mentorship opportunities and recruits would still live in same sex squad bays within the integrated battalion barracks. The novelty of this construct is that it would allow for greater selection among the training staff so that the highest caliber personnel, male or female, could be handpicked for the battalion commander, sergeant major, company commander and company first sergeant positions. This would expose recruits to strong leaders of both genders, set an immediate precedent for respectful relations beyond boot camp, and would eliminate the artificial cap on the overall number of enlisted women in the Corps. This phase would enable a change to recruiting methods for women as well, with a focus on quality and athletics and would enable the potential for long-term growth of the female population throughout the entire Marine Corps.
Organizational culture would improve
Integration would enhance cooperation and competition between males and females, and would strengthen the foundation of respect across gender lines. It would allow recruits to observe each other challenging themselves throughout training and would dispel the prevalent myth that training for women is somehow different or easier. In such an environment, there would be greater opportunity for male and female recruits to push each other to excel while also allowing the male drill instructors, many of whom have never served with women, to see female drill instructors working just as hard and at the same level of capability.
Further, recruits of both genders would benefit from having male and female role models with real combat experience. Co-ed training would also require male drill instructors to discipline female recruits and female drill instructors to discipline male recruits, thus demonstrating that Marines don't discriminate by gender when it comes to holding others accountable. Finally, integration would enable female drill instructors to continue to be mentors for women, while leveraging the talent pool of male and female drill instructors and staff for the benefit of all recruits.
Increasing lethality of the force
Segregation breeds neglect. Despite the Corps' motto "Every Marine a rifleman," for decades, female recruits have underperformed on the rifle range — both at boot camp and throughout the operating forces. This has had profound implications on the lethality of the force. Historically, female recruits have qualified on the M-16 rifle at a 67 to 72 percent pass rate, compared to their male counterparts who qualified at an 85 to 92 percent pass rate. As a result, one third or more of every female cohort had to repeat training on the rifle range, wasting time and resources and reducing their shooting and weapons handling confidence. With the lack of emphasis on female range success rates, it is no wonder that the women who participated in the recent integrated task force experiment did not perform up to the level of the males.
Last year, game-changing improvements were made to the female rifle range training by eliminating bias with the male coaches, focusing the female drill instructors on augmenting the efforts of the coaches, and raising expectations for recruit performance. The result? In a few months' time, the female initial rifle qualification rate rose to just under 92 percent. The changes also resulted in a significantly higher number of women qualifying as experts, and dramatically enhanced the perception of what women were capable of achieving. Improving female shooting performance also fostered a healthy and unprecedented spirit of competition between male and female platoons on the rifle range. Given the Marine Corps' mission to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy, the importance of improvements to marksmanship scores for women cannot be overstated.
An unprecedented opportunity
This is an historic opportunity for the Marine Corps to fundamentally improve how we indoctrinate men and women into our culture at recruit training. Senior leaders today have an unprecedented opportunity to fully leverage the talent base of all drill instructors and junior officers while ensuring all recruits are held to the same high standards for performance, regardless of gender. In making this change, the Corps will increase the potential for females to meet the high standards for the infantry and other ground combat jobs, improve the caliber and number of female Marines in every job specialty throughout the operating forces, and reduce male resistance to women serving in new roles. As the secretary of the Navy understands, the integration of recruit training will unleash the potential of all Marines and increase the lethality of the force. It's time.
Lt. Col. Kate Germano commanded 4th Recruit Training Battalion, the service's only all-female recruit battalion, at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, from June 2014 to June 2015. She also served as commanding officer of Recruiting Station San Diego from June 2007 to June 2010. She currently serves as presiding officer of the Naval Clemency and Parole Board at the Washington Navy Yard.