Why There Are So Few Women At West Point

Yesterday we happened on Colonel (Ret) Ellen Haring‘s article “Why Are There So Few Women at West Point? Ask Congress,” in which Haring makes a number of gender-advocacy claims and proposals regarding the number of women in the military. The full referenced report is here. We summarize Col Haring’s major points as:

  • Women are too few at West Point, based on relative accomplishment in other social arenas.
  • Congressional representatives might be restricting nominations (for some unknown/unspecified reason), which are essential to attend West Point (and other service academies), and therefore are preventing women from attending.
  • When West Point is pressured to admit more women, it has shown that it can.
  • If we want the “most talented military possible,” the Academies need to admit more women, because…
    • when women are admitted, they tend to do disproportionately well.
  • Women ought to have equal access to the benefits of the Academies.
  • Therefore, Academies need to market to and recruit more women.

Fortunately, a number of these claims and assertions can be investigated numerically with our dataset, obtained through FOIA request from USMA.

Application & Acceptance Rates

We first investigate the overall picture of the sexual demographic of applicants and attendees to see whether attendance rates are comparable. **4/29 update: We’ve established that “applicants” in the data files didn’t all actually apply. The data contained all candidate files opened. It was unclear exactly who applied. So we’ll use the broadest definition of “applicants” available, which is everyone with a file. This at least will be consistent from year to year.**

The table below represents the number of USMA applicants and attendees for each class year. “Female” and “Male” ought to be self-explanatory, although the coding in the dataset did have some null fields or “other” fields. “0” represents someone who opened a file as an application, and “1” represents a cadet who attended USMA long enough to accrue some sort of CQPA component. In this table, “1” represents the matriculated cadets or “attendees”.

Attendees & Applicants

To make parsing this a bit easier, we have the rates of attendees and applicants by sex summarized below:

rates admission.JPG

“% of applications” means the percentage split of applications of Women and Men, respectively, against the total number of applicant files opened.

So women have seen a strong relative increase in interest starting in/about 2015 (for class of 2019). But as an absolute number of applicants, women are outnumbered 3:1 in recent classes. This alone would make achieving “more” female representation difficult.

And we see that the rate of applicants admitted for women has actually gone down, even as number of applicants have gone up. How can this be? Is the Academy biased against women, as Haring charges??

There are other possible explanations, including (but not limited to) qualified women deciding not to attend USMA, or simply not a large pool of qualified female applicants. But we can confirm that USMA is indeed continuing to recruit women, since the number of applicants is going up substantially.

The table below breaks out applicants by Sex, then Qualified status, then Attended status by class year from 2012 to 2020, in raw totals and then percentages.

qual & attend

We see that the rate of unqualified women applying (as a percentage of all female applicants) is consistently and significantly higher than that of men – about 6% higher. Recall that qualification is based on physical, academic, and leadership admissions standards, and is not reflective of congressional appointment. Looking at the qualified / attended group only by sex, we see that womens’ rates of attending West Point, once qualified, closely track to mens’ rates, generally varying within a percentage point or two every year.

qual attend by sex

With the exception of 2018, where women attendees dramatically outpaced men as a percentage of qualified attendees, we see comparable rates of attending West Point. So women are not being discriminated against, shown as rates of applicants.

So the first speculation/contention of Col Haring is incorrect. Women have, and are taking, equal opportunity to attend West Point. But at the same time, there are fewer women applying (compared to men), and of those fewer female applicants, many more unqualified women (again, taken as a rate versus men).

Qualification & SAT Rates

We support this point of view by looking at the entering applicant (defined as file opened) and admittee pools’ SAT Math & Verbal test scores histogram for classes of 2012-2020, below:

Female Attend vs Not Attend 2012-2020 SAT

This is helpful in visualizing the performance distribution of admittees against the entire applicant pool. We will use the SAT test as a proxy for overall performance since we found that it is highly correlated with GPAs, graduation, and so on. We develop it further with a similar calculation, put into a tabular data format, and including the Male calculation as well for comparison.

male female qual attend sat 2012-2020.JPG

This shows that at the 800 SAT score range, 23 of the 25 women who were “qualified” attended the Academy, resulting in a 92% attendance rate. The comparable mens’ rate was 88%. From our other posts, we assume these are Corps Squad athletes.

We see that the percentages of females attending at each level of ability distribution is roughly comparable to men, and is higher only at the very low (800, 900 SAT) and very high (1600) ability levels. So this supports our contention that women have equal opportunity to attend West Point if they so choose – but they’re choosing not to, at very similar rates to men.

Why is this? We hypothesize that West Point is a less attractive option to many women than it is to many men. Personal preferences are the simplest explanation.

Note that the process of “qualifying” an applicant really cuts down the applicant pool!

Female Performance at USMA

We noted the justification of performance at West Point to be interesting, in saying that women were graduating disproportionately high in their classes.

The small percentage of women who do gain admission often perform better than their male classmates. Despite women making up just under 20 percent of the 2018 West Point class, eight of the top 10 graduates were women, and women made up 44 percent of honor roll students.

We would be interested in 1) whether this is accurate, seeing as it’s reported as being from a Cadet’s word-of-mouth, and not USMA (see the article source); 2) what the degree concentrations of these women were. Kinesiology is easier than mechanical engineering. Our own data, derived from December or January 2017, showed that 12 of the top 15 CPS rankings for the class of 2018 belonged to Male students.

honors 2018

So a 180-degree turnabout in male performance for that class year in the space of a semester would be interesting, to say the least. Data for the graduated class of 2017 shows that 17 of the top 20 cadets were male:

2017 rank.JPG

Reviewing the class of 2016 shows that 18 of the top 20 were male.

**Update 5/6/2020**

Well, this is embarrassing. We provided CPS rankings by class to illustrate our point, but didn’t select for cadets that have actually graduated. Some in the above tables had resigned and left early, so we reviewed and scrubbed the data.

Two additional findings came out of this. First, we found that our original findings are roughly correct. We extended past the top 15 students in classes 2014-2017 (since we didn’t have “Graduated” status codes for the class of ’18 at the time of the dataset). The number of male vs female cadets in the top 25 students by calculated CPS is below.

20200506 re-ranking

6 of the top 25 students is not 8 of 10. In reviewing the (ungraduated) class of ’19, we see that two of the top 25 cadets by CPS are female.

The total tables by class are below. The status code filter of “G” is “Graduated”.

20200506 4class CPS ranks

We scrubbed some separations, but the results are roughly the same. Admittedly, we may not have calculated CPS exactly the way West Point does, but this is what we got with the known grading rubrics. Corrections will be posted.

The second finding will be included on the “West Point Is Not Selective” post.

** End Update**

Col Haring needs to provide real data for her case, not agreeable hearsay from a local news station.

Additionally, we find that the demographic logic of:

His response was that West Point’s demographics should mirror the Army that it serves and that since the Army is made up of less than 20 percent women so too should the academy. At that time, West Point was following a strict class composition goal that was set at 16 percent women.

is internally consistent, although not anchored to any objective reality about Army performance. So there is nothing to argue with there, except perhaps the idea that the officer corps should mirror the Army’s demographics. There is no empirical basis for this idea that we’re aware of, although it “sounds good” in an environment where achieving demographic goals is related to one’s career.

Congressional Nominations

Since we do not have congressional nomination data to examine, we cannot make a categorical determination that women have full and equal “opportunity” to attend USMA; perhaps Menendez really is discriminating against women. However, the similar levels of qualification and attendance for women based on raw data and SAT scores strongly suggest that, fortunately, Col Haring’s worry that women are getting short shrift in admission is unfounded. If women are being held back at a certain rate, then so are men, and perhaps moreso, as we’ll show. Further, as circumstantial evidence, we’d imagine that congressmen, of all people, would be trying to nominate as many women as possible in order to avoid specifically this type of attack on their support of their female constituencies.

Military Talent

We still need to consider Col Haring’s other points about what the Army should be doing if it “[wants] the most talented military possible.” [emphasis added]

Based on the test score distributions in the table above, we note that at “high” levels of ability — we’ll use a combined Math/Verbal SATs of 1300+ for “high” ability — the number of male applicants who did not attend USMA, at 3031, outnumbered the comparable number of women who did not attend, at 573, by 5.3x  (3031 / 573). At “very high” ability levels of SAT 1500+, this ratio was 3.4x; at 1600, the ratio is 14x.

The raw numbers of qualified (though not necessarily attended) candidates are below for 2012-2020. The M/F ratio for each 10-pt gradation of combined SAT score never drops below 3.3x and consistently hovers around the 5-7x range .

qualified by SAT.JPG

So, in an SAT rank-ordered environment assuming a class of 1400 cadets, the class composition would have been 243 women and 1161 men, or female percentage of 17%. Taken as a rate of all qualified candidates with scores over 1300, the percentage would have been 15%. This implies that the current percentage of women at West Point (20% according to Col Haring, although higher if we look at matriculating vs graduating classes) is 33% too high based on available talent distributions.

This is only a cursory academic aptitude examination. If we examined physical performance, we would find even more stark relative ability distributions that would govern the number of eligible candidates for the academies. Another way of saying this is that if women and men had to meet the same objective physical standards (mens), then the number of women attending would drop dramatically. Overall, the number of eligible, high-aptitude candidates from the male end of the spectrum greatly outnumbers the women available.

And this is not just a matter of the Academies needing to adjust their recruiting tactics. Recall that the number of unqualified women as a percentage of the applicant pool has stayed roughly constant as the female applicant pool has grown. One might suggest “recruit more qualified women,” but then one would be begging the question and dodging the two main issues of–first–why so few women relative to men want to attend USMA (we hypothesize it’s because being in the Army is more of a masculine than feminine disposition, but what do we know?), and second–the general ability distributions of males and females as groups, which ensures that most of the high-performing outliers (as well as low-performing outliers) are men.

Separation Rates

Additionally, in our own investigation of separations by sex for classes of 2012-20, we found that 23.7% of women separated from USMA after starting, vs 21.8% of men. A 1.9% absolute difference in attrition doesn’t sound like much, but it’s an 8%+  (1.9 / 21.8) difference in recruitment and overhead costs for bringing females vs males to the Academy.

So a policy that was truly seeking to form “the most talented military possible” would consist of men even more than it does now.

Why This Is An Issue

On the one hand, this analysis shows that young women have great–equal or better–opportunity than men of equal aptitude to attend the US Military Academy. On the other, this means that Col Haring’s cry to increase female recruiting is misplaced, because a policy designed to matriculate and graduate the overall “most talented” pool of cadets would result in fewer females. Since Col Haring wants more females, she is considering gender to be the primary determinant of worth.

If anything, the Army should focus on high-aptitude male recruiting and retention to build the ‘most talented military possible’, and is currently missing out on highly qualified individuals in order to further female recruiting. We suggest that Col Haring and similarly minded officials can therefore stop worrying about whether the number of women at service academies is “not high enough.”

Her own career as someone who

… has researched and studied the roles and effects of the military’s newly created Female Engagement Teams in conflict environments. Currently, she is engaged in efforts to expand the rights and roles of women in the US military.

and writes navel-gazing article after article about female equality, viz. feminist causes, indicates that her focus is not actually on military efficacy, but rather on promoting a feminist agenda.

If we’re somehow missing the point, we suggest that she or others provide a direct, logically reasoned case linking the percentage of women in the Army to winning wars (the research suggesting that women “can” enhance combat cabilities through “social sensitivity,” being pseudoscientific fluff, is not a sufficient demonstration), and provide an actual percentage target and ability profile for female staffing, instead of just saying “not high enough.” We would like to see a sound case for why the large number of qualified men should be disregarded in order to bring more women into the military, overlooking the integration costs (and other costs) of doing so. What advantages, if any, of integration clearly outweigh these costs?

Otherwise, we’re forced to assess her positions as rent-seeking. “Equality” is not a recipe for winning wars, but it is a recipe for plum progressive think-tank author-jobs.

As always, thoughtful criticism and factual corrections are welcome.

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