Do you remember the Presidential Physical Fitness Tests, where elementary school students were paraded before their gym class peers for public humiliation based on how many pullups they could (or, more often, couldn’t) do?
Luckily, those ended in 2012, but in some occupations, adults are still subject to basically the same treatment. For instance, the FBI in 2003 instituted physical fitness requirements for aspiring special agents. It, too, is called the PFT.
Among other things, would-be special agents must be able to do a minimum number of pushups—30 for men, 14 for women. One applicant fell one measly pushup short of passing the PFT, and handled his disappointment in that most American of ways: He sued.
Jay Bauer, who remains with the FBI as an intelligence analyst, claims the PFT discriminates against men, who have to do more pushups than women. A Virginia trial court agreed with him, but on Jan. 11, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overruled the decision and remanded the case.
The appeals court noted that men and women pass the PFT at roughly equal rates. Because “equally fit men and women demonstrate their fitness differently,” the court said the different requirements were permissible under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
“An employer does not contravene Title VII when it utilizes physical fitness standards that distinguish between the sexes on the basis of their physiological differences but impose an equal burden of compliance on both men and women, requiring the same level of physical fitness of each,” Judge Robert King wrote.
Leaving aside the wisdom of rejecting otherwise qualified applicants for special agent over a single pushup, Bauer’s contention that the fitness standards are unfair to men sounds like the sort of complaint you’d most likely hear in an elementary school. In fact, in the days of the old fitness tests, many young boys made that very complaint—to no avail.
— Dolan Staff Writer David Donovan