The head of the Pennsylvania State Police urged the U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday to withdraw a new lawsuit that claims the agency's physical fitness standards for recruits discriminate against women.The typical response to fitness standards that have a disparate impact on women is something like, "Hey, the bad guys aren't going to make it easier for someone weak...." Undoubtedly, there is something to that assertion, but only if the fitness standard actually relates to the requirements of the job. If the police department wants recruits to be able to run, say, 1/2 mile with 30 lbs of gear in under 5 minutes because that simulates a chase situation that police officers are likely to encounter, I can see why the department would want to insist on that even if it had a disparate impact on women. On the other hand, if the department set the requirement at running a mile in under 6 minutes, well, it's hard to see why police officers would need to be able to run that fast, and we might suspect that such a requirement is in place simply to screen out more women than men.
About those Pennsylvania State Police standards....
Noonan said the standards for incoming recruits are modest, including a 300 meter run in 1 minute and 17 seconds, 13 push-ups, a 14-inch vertical leap and running for 1.5 miles in 17 minutes and 48 seconds.I don't know how to assess the difficulty of the push-ups (although note that I'm far from Hercules, and my max number of push-ups is somewhere in the 40s), but as for the running requirements, at the risk of sounding speed-ist, I'll say that they do seem modest. 1.5 miles in 17 minutes, 48 seconds works out to a pace of 11:52. If you haven't been running at all, that probably wouldn't be all that easy to achieve. But if you want to be a police officer, you should be training to pass the test!
Consider this study reported on by the New York Times Wellness Blog:
Dr. Berry calculated that a man in his 50s who can run a mile in 8 minutes or less, or a woman who can do it in 9 minutes or less, shows a high level of fitness. A 9-minute mile for a man and 10:30 for a woman are signs of moderate fitness; men who can’t run better than a 10-minute mile, and women slower than 12 minutes, fall into the low-fitness category.(emphasis added) Keep in mind that this study was assessing the physical fitness of people in their 50s based on their running ability. Presumably, police recruits are going to be younger than in their 50s. A 50-year-old running an 11:52 mile age grades to about a 10:39 mile for a young person. Put another way, for a young person to run an 11:52 mile is equivalent to a 50-year-old running a 13:36 mile.
This means that the Pennsylvania State Police department is actually passing some younger people whose running ability, per Dr. Berry, "fall into the low-fitness category."
(Now, the 300 meter run is more challenging, as completing that in 77 seconds is just under a 7:00 pace. But 300 meters is just 3/4 of the way around a regular track. It's not exactly a pure sprint, as aerobic capacity is going to kick in a limiting factor, but it's still a pretty short distance.)
I'm not sure I understand what the Justice Department is really seeking here. According to the news story, about 30% of women fail the fitness test, while only a tiny (but unstated) percentage of men do. I can't really imagine that the goal is to set differential results so that the failure rates equalize, as that would be a quota.
More plausible might be different standards based on the equivalent fitness levels by gender. That is, a woman running an 11:52 pace is at (per the age grading calculator) about the 40% level for females. The equivalent time for a male (that is, the 40% level) is a 10:37 pace - in other words, women would have to run 1.5 miles in 17 minutes, 48 seconds, while men would have to run the same distance in 15 minutes, 55 seconds. The FBI does this with its physical fitness test scale, where men have to do more push-ups and sit-ups and run faster 300 meter sprints and 1.5 mile runs than women do for the same score.
Presumably 30% of female recruits would still fail if Pennsylvania increased the difficulty on the men's side, but now we can expect that more of the males would fail. To the extent we are concerned that the recruiting pool has too high of a male-female ratio, such a change in standards would make some difference. But if we are concerned that the pool simply has too few females in absolute numbers, this change wouldn't do anything. It certainly wouldn't help any of the female applicants who currently can't pass the fitness test.
Of course, we could move the differential in standards in the other direction. That is, we could find the equivalent percentile pace for women to an 11:52 pace for men, which is a move that presumably would decrease the number of women who fail.
But here's the funny thing. Remember those FBI standards? You have to get a minimum of 1 point in each of the four categories (push-ups, sit-ups, 300 meter run, 1.5 mile run). What does it take for a female to earn 1 point? Well . . . how about 14 push-ups, a 300 meter sprint in under 1 minute, 5 seconds, and a 1.5 mile run in under 14 minutes.
Maybe the Justice Department thinks that the FBI is supposed to be elite so it's entitled to expect a higher degree of physical fitness from its Special Agents than the Pennsylvania State Police department does, but that's awfully condescending. Yet, that's already the result right now; it would be even worse if the Justice Department really means to force Pennsylvania to pass female applicants who can't even pass the current standards.
In the end, it seems to me that the Justice Department should have bigger dragons to slay than what seems to me to be fairly modest fitness requirements.