Female Specific Human Performance in the Military

Much of the study of human performance in the military has focused on men. Given the number of women who serve in the military and the increasing number of women interested in pursuing special operations it is important to seek performance equity for women. In this scenario performance equity means that women are given all the support they need to improve maintain and augment their human performance based on their biology. By considering female specific needs and impediments to their human performance women can have an equal chance at performing at their body’s biological best.

In this quest for performance equity, there are three broad areas which need to be considered: (1) Female-unique biology, (2) Socio-cultural considerations and (3) Tactical Gear & Equipment.

1. Female-Unique Biology

According to the US National Institute of Health “the menstrual cycle — a complex process orchestrated by interactions between many of the body’s tissues, cells, and hormones — reflects a person’s overall health status and can be thought of as a “fifth vital sign,” along with blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate.” This is an important element in a woman’s biology and menstrual health screenings need to be a standard part of health check ups for female soldiers.

The hormonal changes throughout the cycle have implications for performance and there are many ways which women can optimize their performance throughout those changes. The changes in estrogen and progesterone affect key performance areas and as each person experiences them differently, a female soldier specific personalized optimization plan should be explored. Specifically sleep, cognitive emotional, nutritional, muscle and gut performance can be optimized throughout the cycle. To better support female soldiers, militaries should consider:

· Menstrual cycle coaches that help soldiers better understand their cycle and what is healthy and unhealthy from a physical, menstrual and emotional perspective.

· Contraception Advisors for tactical operations and deployments who can help soldiers best identify what is the right contraception plan for them given their missions, deployments and assignments.

· Cycle Sync Fitness trainers and coaches who are able to sync workouts with the menstrual cycle of the soldier to maximize gains and pursue optimal recovery.

· Self Knowledge education programs to help female soldiers better understand how their biology works and the hormonal shifts so they can best understand their body and mitigate performance degradation and amplify performance optimization. As the perception around the soldier is shifting towards seeing the soldier as the weapon system, self-knowledge and self-optimization to manage one’s “body-weapon system” will be key.

2. Socio-Cultural Considerations

Many of the inequalities that women face in society and in the workplace are invisible. The military remains a primarily male dominated environment and while there are now more female soldiers than in the past, there are still many invisible hurdles that are not fully appreciated that are due to social and cultural reasons. One example of these that affects female human performance is ‘tactical dehydration’.

I spoke with someone working in special forces in a NATO country who is trying to mitigate this problem which he sees affecting female soldiers trying out for special operations. He explained to me that he notices female soldiers avoid hydrating in multi-day trainings so that they can avoid having to urinate. For men urinating does not involve exposing one’s self in the way that it does for women. This creates a unique and invisible social situation where women are degrading their performance by not staying hydrated. Bringing observations and stories like this to light helps create transparency in the problems unique to women and can help everyone involved seek solutions. In the case of tactical dehydration, there could be ways to create a crotch zipper that would allow women to squat without taking off their pants. There is a prototype of this, but other solutions can be ideated knowing this is a barrier to women being able to focus on the mission and perform to the best of their ability.

There are more invisible barriers and the only way to find out about them is to ask and create spaces for them to be shared.

3. Tactical Gear & Equipment

While there have been improvements over the years. It is important that militaries pay attention to the equipment that is issued to women and conduct an assessment as to whether it affects female human performance because it was designed for men.

Women are not smaller men. Women’s arches tend to be higher than men’s, which means boots issued to women should consider this. Backpacks issued to women should not have front straps that are positioned for a male chest without breasts. These two examples are to illustrate that it is important to consider women’s unique anatomy when issuing them gear and equipment.

Militaries can conduct an assessment on all military equipment and gear issued to women to determine if there was any consideration for the female anatomy and how it impacts female human performance. Similarly engaging with the female military community about what they need and examples of what doesn’t work for them is an important information gathering exercise that should take place periodically.

Not having appropriate shoes or a bullet proof vest that caters to the female anatomy plays a role in their human performance and in the worst circumstances it could make the difference between life or death in theater.

Women have a lot to offer, particularly in special operations as they can engage with local populations and can infiltrate in ways men cannot. Besides offering different perspectives and solutions women can provide unique access and placement. Likewise, women have important ways they can contribute to covert and special reconnaissance missions. If militaries want to see more gender diversity and inclusion, they will need to start having female-focused human performance programs which help female soldiers perform to the best of their biological ability.

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Dr. Lydia Kostopoulos (@Lkcyber) is a systems thinker whose work lies in the intersection of emerging tech, society, security, culture and strategy. She is the Senior Vice President of Emerging Tech Insights at KnowBe4, continues to work with U.S. Special Operations, speaks at NATO events and has worked with the United Nations and the IEEE Standards Body. In the realm of technology ethics she is an advisor for the Data Ethics Consortium for Security and for Ethical Intelligence Associates.

She loves to experiment and push the bounds of the possible and help others posture themselves to make the most of new technologies in the context of changing and emerging trends. In efforts to raise awareness on AI and ethics she makes reflectional art #ArtAboutAI, and made a game about emerging technology and ethics called Sapien2.0 . She also has a fashion label Empowering Workwear by Lydia that she uses to make art installations that you wear with story telling fashion. Her debut product is the #Fortune500Shirt — watch the trailer for it here.

You can find her on Twitter, Instagram or Linkedin, for more about her projects check out her site.

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