The lengthy study carried out by the IDF Medical Corps in conjunction with the United States Army Medical Department, states that the physical stress demanded of women in combat roles must be limited. The study and its findings were led by the Israeli Medical Corps’ physiological section. Participating in the study were professionals on behalf of the Women’s Affairs Advisor to the Chief of Staff and personnel from the IDF’s combat fitness department.
The research included an in-depth study of women’s integration into combat units, given the physiological differences between males and females. The researchers focused on the “Caracal” light infantry battalion which is comprised mostly of women. Less than half the soldiers in the unit are men, unlike other combat units that are open to women (for example certain artillery and air defense units where the number of women stands at ten or twenty percent). In general, the overall percentage of women who fill roles considered “combat” stands at only 3%. Women who volunteer for combat units serve for three years, compared to the regular two year service for most women.
The test group, whose results appear below, was made up of dozens of women from the “Caracal” unit (whose designated task is security and observation along the Jordanian border in the south of the Israel) and their male counterparts from the same unit, as well as test groups of female soldiers who serve as medics or dental assistants. Every few weeks the participants went to the IDF’s physiological institute at the Tel Hashomer Hospital for physical strength stress tests and check-ups of irregular phenomena such as stress fractures in the legs. The study began prior to enlistment and continued through basic training and the entire military service. All of the participants had to fill in detailed questionnaires on their lifestyle before enlistment, especially aspects of it that were likely to have influenced bone structure and physical strength.
The research found that even when physical demands of female combat soldiers were significantly reduced, according to a special “stress scale” prepared for the “Caracal” female combat, and was considered lighter than the standard test used for men in combat training, still 12% of the women suffered from stress fractures compared to zero percent for the men. On the other hand, male combat soldiers who trained according to the reduced stress scale adapted for women attained a lower level of physical strength than the IDF standard in combat units.
The study attributed stress fracture to two main factors: differences in lifestyle between women and men in the preenlistment period and, naturally, physical differences between the sexes, such as the higher percentage of fat in women’s bodies or the more developed muscle mass in men.
The research confirmed what the literature has long claimed: bone density in men is significantly higher than in women. However, when the male or female combat soldier was examined individually, in some cases the women were stronger than the men and in better physical condition. Nevertheless, the physical demands on women in combat units have to be reduced by 30% compared to those of the men, especially in endurance training (which demands prolonged effort such as running). As for load carrying – women must not be made to carry more than 30% of their weight and men no more than 40%.
Another finding: When women are in their early and middle teens they do less physical activity than men, and their rate of dieting is much higher. They eat fewer foods rich in calcium, such as cheese, which is necessary for bone strengthening, and some of the studies showed that women who planned on volunteering for combat units suffered from stress fracture when they carried out a training regimen on their own, prior to enlistment.
Based on the research results, it was decided to continue integrating women into combat units but in a controlled manner. Every new role for women that demands a significant physical effort has to be scrutinized first.
The study emphasizes that special care has to be taken on the “stress scale” to lighten the demands on women during the training period. The IDF has also decided to prepare women for combat units prior to enlistment – mainly through education and information programs that explain correct eating habits and training regimens conducive to good health. During training and operational duty the amount of time that women have to stand continuously will be reduced since it was found that prolonged stranding, not only running, can induce stress fracturing – a phenomenon that does not exist among the men.
“If the study enables women to reach combat roles duty better prepared – the result will be less stress fractures and loss of training days, which is especially important since women take a longer time to recuperate than men”, says a source in the IDF’s medical branch. “As a rule, the research findings corroborate what physiological science has long known, but they enable us to continue integrating women into combat units with minimum mistakes”.
Thanks to the research findings and the policy that the Women’s Affairs Advisor to the Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Gila Kalifi, recommended, the army decided to focus on improving the integration of women into traditionally maledominated roles now open to them, rather than opening new roles still being performed by men only. The improvement in the integration of women into combat roles includes not only the reduction of physical demands but also the adaptation of equipment to their specific needs (protective vests and helmets, for example), and guaranteeing conditions that enable them to remain in the field for as long as the men (such as separate latrines and showers).