Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.
The latest controversy over women in the military has focused on the removal last month of a Marine Corps commanding officer, Lt. Col. Kate Germano, because of accusations of "hostile, unprofessional and abusive" behavior toward recruits.
Germano, who has asked Congress to investigate, says she was targeted by senior command because of her push for gender integration in the corps. But is this a case of old-style male chauvinism -- or did Germano run afoul of politically correct, supposedly pro-woman sensitivities?
While the Obama administration has made it a priority to fully integrate women into the armed services by January, when the ban on women in combat will be lifted, integration efforts have run into problems due to enduring disparities in physical performance. Reducing the disparities was one of Germano's concerns, and in at least one area she succeeded. When Germano took over as commander of an all-female battalion of recruits on Parris Island, she discovered that 21 percent of those recruits failed to meet qualification standards at rifle marksmanship, compared with 7 percent of male recruits.
Traditionally, lower standards for women in this area (in which women are capable of achieving the same skills as men) had been tacitly accepted as the norm. Germano would have none of it. She set out to raise women's rifle qualification rates -- and, in a year, improved them from 79 to 91 percent.
In other areas, too, Germano pushed higher standards and equal expectations for women. When she saw that, at a ceremony marking the end of a training course, the women had a row of chairs behind their formation to sit in if they felt too tired or sore after a nine-mile march -- while the men had to stand the whole time -- Germano ordered the chairs removed. Her efforts reportedly resulted in better performance and retention as well as fewer injuries.
Some officers described her as "firm but fair." But some found her approach too authoritarian and even abusive. Apparently, one of her transgressions was telling female trainees the men would not respect them or take orders from them if they could not meet high standards of physical performance. A report obtained by the Marine Corps Times claimed that such a message "reinforced gender bias and stereotypes."
Apparently, Germano also deviated from the party line on sexual assault by emphasizing prevention and telling trainees that heavy drinking put them at risk. This led some women to claim they would not feel "safe" reporting an assault.
After complaints from some recruits, there was an investigation and a command climate online survey, completed by about two-thirds of the battalion, in which half of the respondents said the leadership failed to promote a climate of respect and trust. Germano says the complaints came from disgruntled low performers and the survey was skewed because it allowed multiple voting.
Germano's supporters say she was penalized because male commanders were put off by her bluntness and her aggressive efforts to promote coed exercises. The Times followed its report on her ouster -- which omitted the complaints about her supposedly "victim-blaming" message on sexual assault -- with an op-ed criticizing the Marines' "culture of hypermasculinity" as an obstacle to women. But it seems that what Germano ran into was a culture of hypersensitivity.
Gender equality in the military is an ambitious experiment -- one that many conservatives say is doomed by both physical and psychological differences between the sexes. Time will tell.
But if this experiment is to succeed, Germano's tough-love approach that requires truly equal standards is the only way to go.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.