Angry Young Woman

Mel O'Sullivan - August 22, 2021

For the women in the military Physical Training - or PT- is it's own special kind of battleground. At least that's how I remember it.

The military is one of the very few workplace cultures where your physical fitness can and does dictate your suitability for a job. The ability to keep up or excel in PT can, and often does impact an individuals credibility and social standing in the team.

Although I was raised on a farm and have ridden horses for a large part of my life I was not a particularly athletic kid. We lived too far from town and fees for team sports for three children proved to be too expensive for my family when we were kids. I am not naturally competitive and had never done any serious running or fitness training. 

Although I tried to run and prepare myself for enlistment I still only just passed my initial fitness test.

Technically military fitness tests acknowledge the physical differences and capabilities of men and women.


The law of the jungle in basic training says otherwise. Early on in the year Officer Cadets are required to nominate a sport to play. Never having played much team sport I kind of wanted to try everything. As I was small in stature I was asked if I would like to be a Coxswain for one of the men's rowing teams - didn't matter that I knew nothing about the sport. The Blue Ribbon Men's eight sacked me fairly quickly and I ended up coxswain of the Disher Cup Winning Men's Four. I fell in love with rowing and rowed Bow Side in the Women's Eight until I finished my Honours year in 1996.

I did all the ground training with the crew and learned that I liked the gym and I liked running - so my base level fitness developed fairly well. Crucially - I could perform reasonably well in group PT sessions. I could usually finish somewhere towards the front of the women and in the middle of the men.

There are studies about the culture which mention that women in military training have to learn to be surrogate men. One clear conclusion stated by the study is that the bar for social acceptance for the women was quite a bit higher than the bar for social acceptance for the men - and was clearly tied in to physical aptitude and performance. The women really actually did have to be twice as good as the men just to be accepted at all.  The boys could fail at PT and still be accepted socially. One of the girls who struggled or failed at PT would often be ostracised (to put it mildly) and labelled in less than flattering terms.

A lot of us  learned to be very sensitive about social perception and reputation as it linked to physical ability in PT - at least I did. You simply had to be able to keep with the boys and at times could be forced to defend your reputation quite aggressively. At the time I simply did not have the maturity or life experience to disengage with social criticism that I now enjoy. I rapidly developed a personal policy of "Attack before you are attacked". My reputation for being prickly and stand offish was well earned.

PT was a social battleground and I was a very angry and aggressive young woman.

In the last few years I've put a lot of work into examining and changing my learned behaviours and reactions- with a very positive impact on my life and relationships - especially at work.

A few months ago WithYouWithMe set up an employee exercise and wellbeing programme for all WYWM employees. We have group fitness and wellbeing sessions delivered online, tailored to veterans and delivered by Brett Turley at Minimalism Fitness. Brett is a veteran who has been in a few tight spots of his own. You could call him a tough guy in some ways (absolute Teddy Bear in others though).

On the day in question I attended a class that included CEO Tom Moore, one of our ex US Army Ranger veterans who destroys punching bags for relaxation and few other fairly tough people. As is usual with these sessions there was a fair bit of friendly sledging going on.

Someone said something and without even thinking I told the CEO (you know - the guy who had to teach himself to walk again) to "stop being a cupcake and get on with it". Someone else said something and with out even thinking I turned on an ex US Army Ranger and lashed out - told him to "get lost" if you know what I mean.

Wide eyed and shocked Brett said to me gently:

"Wow Mel - you can be scary."

Back to the Drawing Board - start again.

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