Monday, December 28, 2009


Here's a tricky question: in jobs like firefighting, police, and the military, should there be separate PT standards for men and women?

On one hand, it's not fair to ask women to have as much strength as men, we're smaller and don't have the hormones to build muscle easily. On the other hand, the real world isn't fair. Someone may be weaker by no fault of her own, but "fault" doesn't matter in a fire or a fight, a weak person is a liability to the team.

My feeling is that there should be one standard, but the people (okay, the guys) who design PT tests should think about what they're really testing for. Do the standards reflect the actual challenges of the job, or do they reflect a relatively arbitrary desire for people in the top percentiles of physical fitness? In other words, are you rejecting a woman because she can't drag hose upstairs, or because she isn't "generally physically fit"? If it's the latter, then sex-divided PT standards are appropriate. But I've never seen a fire go around poking bellies to see who's generally fit, and really, anyone who can pass performance-based standards can't be exactly Spuddie The Amazing Couch Potato.

So I'd say, yeah, make the women perform like the men, but don't make them perform to a standard that prefers men and barely relates to the job. A female firefighter who can run fast and lift heavy doesn't need to be asked how many pushups she can do, too.


  1. Actually I think you need both, women have better/faster reactions then men.

  2. Dan: would you like to present your evidence? To my knowledge, the general consensus says the opposite. (Der and Dreary, 2006, for example) I'd love to read something to the contrary.

  3. Dan - So? My point isn't that one sex is more "fit" than the other, it's that I'd rather give a test that fairly measures ability to do the job. I don't think a test needs to produce a 50-50 sex ratio to be "fair," as long as it only tests relevant and necessary skills.

  4. I've been saying this for years. In the military, not only are PT tests graded differently by gender, but also by age; the stated rationale is that it is not an assessment of your capability to perform a particular task, but an overall assessment of your fitness and endurance. A good physical exam (including, say, monitored time on a stationary bike) can provide a similar if not better assessment of one's overall health...but they cost much more. PT tests, on the other hand, are cheap.

  5. Not much to say; you covered it. Any job that requires physical strength will necessarily average more men than women, because the male bell curve on strength simply is further to the right than the female one*. But those bell curves have plenty of overlap, and any job that's doable by the average fit man will also be doable by a large number of women who're above the average. Fitness standards should always be carefully tailored to the job, and a flat strength-justified ban on women in such-and-such a job is just silly, but as always it's a mistake to see unequal results and assume there's discrimination at work.

    [* - It boggles my mind that some people still get offended when you say this. I've had a pair of testosterone factories pumping away into my bloodstream my whole life; of _course_ I have a greater muscle mass than the average woman. Pump testosterone into a woman from fetushood, and you'll have-- ... Well, a man.]

  6. I work with cops who get booted out at 57 no matter how fit they are. Their fitness test is different based on age and gender.

    On the other hand, the neighboring jurisdiction has no age limit, but has the same test for all ages and genders.

    I've come to think the other jurisdiction has it right. No one who is healthy and interested gets kicked out just based on age. Men trust the women to be as strong as they are because they've both passed the same tests.

    My jurisdiction has one thing right though - if you fail the physical test (weight lifting, stretching, whatever) you can re-take it based on real-life scenarios... ie if you can't lift weights but can lift a 240 lb person, you win! I think that's pretty cool.

  7. Crayonbeam - That last part is awesome. And it's also similar to my experiences--because of the weight distribution, or practice, or maybe just trying harder, I'm able to lift 200 pounds of person a lot better than 200 pounds of metal.

    (I once failed to get a job that required applicants to take a test with a heart rate monitor. You did step exercises and if your heart rate went too high or didn't slow down fast enough after stopping, you failed. It was infuriating to have no control whatsoever over my "performance." Give me a weight to lift or a speed to run and I will put in all my effort--put a monitor on my autonomic functions and you've basically found a legal way to say "no fatties or sickies allowed.")

    (And now I have a job doing the exact same things, and despite my treacherous heart that--OMG WEAKLING--speeds up when I exercise, I've been doing it just fine for years. Turns out that the stretcher is not directly linked to my heart rate and does not vaporize instantly when I go over 100.)

    (Yeah, I'm still bitter.)

  8. I think all applicants should get the same test, and it should be realistic and tailored to the actual job. (Can you move this 200lb dummy? If yes, great! If no, hit the gym and try again in a few weeks.) The average man may be stronger than the average woman, but the bell curves overlap plenty as Elmo said. There's also nothing stopping women from weight training to even things up.

    I tried to apply for a job at a liquor store in college and was flat out told, "no girls because you have to be able to lift a keg". I was soooo pissed off. I'm 5'9", 200lbs, and I could carry my 230+lb ex-boyfriend. If they'd actually asked me to move a keg, I could have probably done it. But noooooo, that wouldn't be sexist! (Bitter too.)

  9. One standard, based on the actual physical requirements to do the job: If you can hack it, you're in, whether you're a pointer or a setter, gay or straight, 20 or 70.

  10. Good to see you here Tam!
    Since you turned me on to my next door neighbor here. Since I totally agree with you, there's no point in repeating what you once said....