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Flex Plan

Physical fitness tests that focus on sheer strength and endurance may not be the most accurate ways to determine qualified applicants for physically demanding jobs and may also increase the likelihood of a gender discrimination lawsuit from female applicants, according to new research from the University of Iowa.

The study, from the Tippie College of Business, suggests instead that in addition to strength and endurance tests, employers should give tests that measure flexibility, balance, coordination, and other forms of movement quality. The study suggests those tests are strong predictors of performance in physically demanding jobs with results that show little difference between genders.

More than 28 percent of Americans today work in physically taxing jobs such as law enforcement, firefighting, construction, maintenance, or the military, so fitness screening is an increasingly important part of the hiring process.

However, physical ability tests are also highly litigious because most male applicants are physically stronger than women when it comes to muscular strength and endurance and thus score higher on those tests. This adverse impact against women leads to physical ability tests being the third highest cause of workplace discrimination suits in federal courts.

In the study, the research team reviewed 140 past studies of differences in various physical abilities between men and women. Their review showed that men were, indeed, physically stronger than women, but found distinct nuances in other differences.

For instance, while it found tests that measured brute muscle strength or cardiovascular endurance favored men, the gender gap was significantly less in tests that measured quality of body movement. In fact, for tests measuring flexibility and balance, the difference was essentially zero.

The analysis also found that increased training improved scores for women, but scores for men also increased at a rate that maintained the gender gap; in cardiovascular endurance, the gap actually increased.

The study suggests employers who want to reduce the gender gap in physically demanding jobs—and the chance of a discrimination lawsuit—use fitness tests that emphasize movement quality, especially flexibility. The researchers say many jobs could be filled using flexibility tests in addition to strength or endurance tests, giving more women an equal chance at the job and reducing the odds of a lawsuit.

Furthermore, the researchers say employers could establish minimum cut-off scores on physical ability tests to establish a pool of candidates and then provide additional training to applicants to help more women get above that cut-off.

Beyond the implications of physical ability in the traditional workplace, the researchers say the study of sex differences is especially relevant at present, with combat roles having recently been opened to military women, who comprise more than 10 percent of active-duty personnel in the U.S. military.

The study, “A Meta-analysis of Sex Differences in Physical Ability,” is currently in press at the Journal of Applied Psychology. It was authored by a team comprised of Stephen Courtright, a UI doctoral alumnus who is now a faculty member at Texas A&M University; current Tippie College of Business doctoral students Brian McCormick and Cody Reeves; Michael Mount, professor of management and organizations in the Tippie College of Business; and Bennett Postlethwaite of Pepperdine University.


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