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Psychological aspects of the integration of women into combat roles
Ricardo Tarrascha,⇑, Orit Lurieb, Ran Yanovichc, Dan Moranc
aPsychology Department, Tel Aviv University, Israel
bSurgeon General H.Q, Israeli Air Force, Israel
cHeller Institute of Medical Research, Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, The Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Tel Aviv University, Israel
a r t i c l e i n f o
Received 24 September 2009
Received in revised form 2 October 2010
Accepted 14 October 2010
a b s t r a c t
Successfully integrating women into army combat roles can be a challenge. This study aimed to identify
the factors that allow women to integrate efficiently into combat units. We compared women and men in
a gender-integrated combat unit with non-combat women soldiers in a non-integrated unit. A sample of
450 Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers participated in the study during their four-month military basic
training (BT). The subjects completed trait and state personality questionnaires and underwent medical
examinations. Female soldiers in both combat and non-combat units displayed higher stress levels than
male soldiers. Female soldiers in combat roles were more similar to their male counterparts than to
female non-combat soldiers in several of the psychological measures used, but felt ‘more commitment
and challenge’. Combat women sought more medical assistance than non-combat women. We address
the difficulties that women in combat roles face and discuss the influence of mediating psychological fac-
tors on their perceived stress and its influences.
? 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
A significant change is taking place in recent years in the IDF’s
willingness to integrate women into what it previously considered
to be primarily male army roles. According to a report by the Com-
mittee for the Status of Women in Israel published in 1976, only
30% of all military roles were open to women, yet by 1997 this
number has risen to 78% (Izraeli, 1997). Women now are eligible
for and serve in such elite combat roles as fighter pilots and naval
officers, as well as in combat units such as anti-aircraft units, bor-
der police, nuclear, biological and chemical warfare defense units,
artillery, and field information security units (Dandeker & Segal,
1996; Draude, 1995). A woman choosing to serve in a fighting role
might have to cope with several stressors in addition to those that
are common for her male counterparts.
Psychological factors have frequently been correlated with neg-
ative outcomes as a result of life changes causing stress, as these
changes require adaptation. Induction into the army environment
can readily be considered as a stressor arising from a lifestyle,
due to the army’s absolute control of the soldier’s life, totalitarian
chain of authority, and required obedience at all times. Soldiers as-
signed to combat units face even greater stress as their roles re-
volve around preparation for and actual engagement in battle.
Thus, induction into the army by itself may lead to chronic stress
accompanied by episodic stress events (Louis, 1980; Moos, 1992).
Of the stressors affecting women in combat roles, some are
physical in nature, having their origin in various physiological dif-
ferences between males and females. Soldiers serving in field units,
combat units in particular, are expected to hold a very high level of
military capacity, which comprises a set of skills that require phys-
ical fitness and agility in difficult field conditions. Women thus face
an inherent disadvantage in this regard, being generally shorter,
weighing on average 20% less, their body mass containing 30%
more fat, and their bones smaller, when compared with their male
counterparts (Abernathy & Black, 1996). The United States Army
has found differences in muscle strength between male and female
soldiers that stem from muscle mass, as measured by isometric
strength, with the strength of women averaging 30% less than that
of men (Martin & Nelson, 1985; Sharp et al., 2002). In the British
army, the abolishment of constraints related to gender recruitment
led to a considerable rise in musculoskeletal injuries in female sol-
diers (Gemmell, 2002). Even among professional athletes, female
aerobic capacity is 15–30% lower than that of males (Clarkson &
Going, 1996; Miller, McDougall, Tarnopolsky, & Sale, 1993). As a
rule, then, the average physical fitness of females is lower than that
of males, resulting in a considerably greater challenge for female
soldiers during their combat service.
Beyond their physical demands, armies are historically mascu-
line cultures. Accordingly, military positions assignments were pri-
marily associated with, and influenced by, historic gender roles.
Several elements affecting the division of staffing according to
0191-8869/$ - see front matter ? 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
⇑Corresponding author. Address: Tel Aviv University, Ramat Aviv, Tel Aviv
69978, Israel. Tel.: +972 54 2121540.
E-mail address: email@example.com (R. Tarrasch).
Personality and Individual Differences 50 (2011) 305–309
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gender include informal social networks, a widespread perception
of females as unskilled assistants, exclusive consideration of male
needs, and a primarily masculine set of values (Titunik, 2000). As
a result, female combat soldiers today are still faced with the addi-
tional burden of fitting themselves, socially and personally, into a
traditionally male culture and its existing conceptions.
The integration of women into fighting roles also forces the
existing military units to adjust accordingly. Each a distinct, closed
social system with a decades-old set of predefined social rules, a
military unit (through its current and past members) may perceive
the induction of female members as a dangerous blow to its social
status quo. Women therefore often confront rejection, alienation,
prejudice, and discrimination within their units. For example,
some male soldiers claimed that women complicate the normal or-
der by adding to their already-high existing workload (Fenner,
1998; Titunik, 2000). Smith and McAllister (1991) found that at
officer training at the Australian military academy, the male cadets’
attitudes towards their female counterparts were far from those of
acceptance and equality. They explained that in different armies,
through selection and training, recruits come to maintain a specific
ethos they consider befitting a military career. Accepting women
into what has been called the male fortress creates a minority with-
in a traditionally masculine environment. This can lead to anger,
the belief that their profession has lowered its standards and aban-
doned its traditions, or both, thereby providing an additional
source of social stress facing female soldiers.
Stressful life events have been conceptualized as stimulus-
based or environmental events that are threatening, harmful, or
taxing. Chronic stress is the response of the brain to unpleasant
events for a prolonged period over which an individual perceives
he or she has no control. Both are hypothesized as having an im-
pact on health or health outcomes, and much like physical patho-
gens, have the potential to cause illness (DeLongis, Folkman, and
Lazarus, 1988). The relationship between stress and illness stems
from stress-stimulating physical changes that disturb the affected
individual’s homeostasis, followed by a struggle to regain their ori-
ginal condition, something that requires an adaptation period. This
period is accompanied by a chain of behavioral, physical, auto-
nomic, metabolic and immunogenic reactions, all of which can
have negative effects on several aspects of life (Ader & Cohen,
1993; Ellis, 1999).
While the relationship between stress and its negative out-
comes is well-established, it is not one of simple, direct stimu-
among these moderators are the individual’s personality traits,
and set of preferences, values and beliefs as eventually expressed
in their behavior. This interpersonal variability in these factors
may lead one individual’s vulnerability to increase when facing
stress, and another’s to decrease under the very same circum-
stances (Antonovsky, 1990; Bolger & Schilling, 1991; Kreitler &
As the actual outcomes of stressful situations depend on several
individual factors, in addition to the objective characteristics of the
stressor (e.g., stress magnitude and duration), the optimal model
for describing stressors and the psychological and physical re-
sponses to them has to consider those personality variables that
may serve as significant mediators or moderators. Among the most
important of these may be the individual’s coping strategies, prep-
aration, strength of self, and the intensity of the internal conflicts
that the situation instigates. Possessing these qualities may signif-
icantly modify the degree to which the individual internalizes the
stress situation and, subsequently, the scope of physical health
problems and psychological distress affecting the individual as a
result of it (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Motzer & Steward, 1996).
It is therefore crucial to identify which moderating factors may
in fact strengthen or weaken the relationship between stress and
stress response and thus render individuals as resistant or vulnera-
ble (Kobasa, 1982; Pengilly & Dowd, 2000).
A comprehensive study into the integration of women into com-
bat roles has yet to be conducted. Specifically, no studies have as-
sessed female soldiers’ psychological reactions to military life in
general, or the stress it involves in particular, or their professional
survivability. While this lack of research is possibly due to the inte-
gration of women into such roles substantially taking place only re-
cently, its importance is nonetheless increasing: In 2009 the IDF
Women’s Affairs Advisor published that women represent a signif-
icant portion of manpower in the combat units in which they serve:
females comprise 25% of soldiers in Search and Rescue units; 20% of
soldiers in the Anti-Aircraft Division and in the Artillery Corps; and
the US Army (Putko & Johnson, 2008) and 9.1% of the British Armed
Forces, as reported by the British Ministry of Defence in 2006.
This study intends to improve our understanding of the possible
mediators and moderators that may reduce stress reactions among
women in combat roles. As such, it has considerable potential the-
oretical and practical uses, in terms of better understanding the
process of women integration into combat roles as well as improv-
ing the methods used in their training. Based on the literature cited
above, it is hypothesized that the stress levels of women in combat
roles will be higher as compared to that of men in combat roles and
women in non-combat roles, and that this stress level will be med-
iated by psychological characteristics of the soldiers. Additionally,
stress levels will be negatively correlated more strongly with phys-
ical health among female as compared to male soldiers.
2.1. Participants and questionnaires
This study’s sample consisted of 450 soldiers, including 235
fighting women (FW) and 80 fighting men (FM) from the Caracal
combat battalion. Established in 2000, this infantry battalion is
composed of female and male soldiers undergoing the same high
level of military training and serving in the same positions. Addi-
tionally, 135 control women (CW) were sampled from a medical-
assistance, non-combat course. All participants were undergoing
basic training (BT; 4 months) in their respective units. The three
groups were of similar age (18.5 ± 0.5, 18.8 ± 0.4 and 18.5 ±
0.5 years; mean and standard deviations, respectively).
Participants responded to questionnaires measuring trait char-
acteristics once (2 months after the beginning of the BT), and to
questionnaires measuring state characteristics three times, these
being before (within 3 days of arrival to the recruit training base),
during (after 2 months) and upon completion of the 4-month
(same length for the three groups) BT period. The participants
underwent medical examinations at the same time they completed
2.2. State characteristics questionnaires
This study used a self-report stress-reactions question that was
written especially for this purpose in order to assess perceived
stress. The item asked, ‘‘Estimate the stress level involved in the
army role that you have chosen’’ in a five-point Likert scale.
This study used the Shirom–Melamed Burnout Measure
(Melamed, Kushnir, & Shirom, 1992). This questionnaire consists
of 22 items that assess its respondents’ burnout level utilizing a se-
ven-point Likert scale. The internal reliability of the questionnaire
ranged from alpha = 0.91 to 0.92.
A self-efficacy measure was constructed on the basis of Bandu-
ra’s (1986) self-efficacy concept. It measured the participants’
R. Tarrasch et al./Personality and Individual Differences 50 (2011) 305–309
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expectations and beliefs with regard to their ability to cope with
trouble successfully. Self-efficacy involves cognitive, social, and
behavioral capacities, which people must organize in an integrated
manner in order to achieve their goals. The belief in a person’s own
capacities influences the actions the person takes, the amount of
effort that person expends, and accordingly those actions’ results.
The questionnaire included nine items utilizing a five-point Likert
scale. The internal reliability of this questionnaire for the three
times it was administered in this study ranged from alpha = 0.91
This study also used IDF medical reports to record the number
of visits the participants made to a doctor during the study period.
2.3. Trait characteristics questionnaires
This study used a 49-item questionnaire developed by Kobasa
(1982) to measure hardiness. Hardiness is defined as a specific per-
sonality characteristic that facilitates handling stress by avoiding
undesired reactions to stressful situations. The term addresses
the participants’ mental health, characterizing them according to
the level in which they are active, involved, and behaving accord-
ing to actual life circumstances. The questionnaire contains the
three sub-scales measuring commitment, control and challenge.
The internal reliability, as measured by Cronbach’s alpha coeffi-
cient, was 0.68 for commitment, 0.62 for control, and 0.65 for
This study used the Lazarus and Folkman (1984) Ways of Coping
Questionnaire to assess the participants’ coping styles. This ques-
tionnaire consists of 68 items that evaluate its respondents’ cogni-
tive and behavioral efforts when confronting stress. It calculates
scores for distance, problem solving, acceptance, and growth. The
Cronbach’s alpha coefficients of these scales for this study were
0.82 for distance, 0.83 for problem solving, 0.79 for acceptance,
and 0.66 for growth.
This study also used the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI) (1981) to
calculate the participants’ socially-defined degrees of masculinity
and femininity. Each participant’s scores was dichotomized for
both masculinity and femininity by their medians, which further
allocated them into the four categories of (a) under the median
in both scores (non-sex type), (b) over the median in both scores
(androgynous type), (c) below the masculine and over the feminine
score (feminine type), and over the masculine and under the fem-
inine score (masculine type). The Cronbach’s alpha internal reli-
ability coefficients of the masculinity and femininity scores were
0.67 and 0.76, respectively.
3.1. State characteristics
The participants’ state characteristics were compared using
3 ? (3) repeated-measurements ANOVAs for the three participant
groups and the three times they completed the questionnaires. Sig-
nificant effects were further analyzed using Tukey’s honestly sig-
nificant difference (HSD) post hoc comparisons.
The responses to the stress question were analyzed for 141 FW,
40 FM, and 88 CW, and yielded a significant effect for group
(F(2,266) = 10.61, p < .001, partial eta squared = .074) and a signifi-
cant interaction between time of measurement and group
(F(4,532) = 3.24, p < .05, partial eta squared = .024). Fig. 1 illustrates
how women in general experienced higher stress than men, but the
two groups of women did not differ significantly (Tukey’s HSDs for
FW vs. FM p < .001, FW vs. CW p = .39, and FM vs. CW p < .001). In
order to assess the source of the interaction, the three groups were
compared at the time of each measurement. CW were found to be
significantly more stressed than FM only at the time of the second
measurement, with a Tukey’s HSD of p < .005.
This study analyzed the responses to the burnout questionnaire
of 144 FW, 40 FM, and 90 CW, and found only a significant interac-
tion between time of measurement and group (F(4,542) = 12.59,
p < .001, partial eta squared = .085). Fig. 2 illustrates how the three
groups did not differ significantly at any time this questionnaire
was administered (no significant Tukey’s HSDs). Although overall
burnout did not change significantly over time, the CW group’s
burnout level rose significantly between the first and second mea-
surements (Tukey’s HSD of p < .001).
The responses to the self-efficacy questionnaire of 145 FW, 41
FM, and 90 CW were analyzed, and a significant interaction be-
tween time of measurement and group was obtained (F(4,546) =
7.97, p < .001, partial eta squared = .055). Fig. 3 illustrates how this
interaction results from the FW group recording a significant drop
in self-efficacy between their first and third measurements (Tu-
key’s HSD of p < .01), while the CW group recorded a rise in self-
efficacy between these measurements (Tukey’s HSD of p < .05).
Fig. 1. Reported stress of the three experimental groups at the three times
Fig. 2. Reported burnout of the three experimental groups at the three times
R. Tarrasch et al./Personality and Individual Differences 50 (2011) 305–309
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The FM group’s decline in self-efficacy was not statistically
3.5. Medical reports
Among participants, 43 FW, 8 FM and 10 CW visited a doctor
during their basic training period. A chi square for the indepen-
dence test comparing participants who made no visits to a doctor
with those making at least one visit was found to be significant
during the training period, compared to only 10% of the FM and
7.4% of the CW.
ð2Þ¼ 9:73; p < :01). Of the FW group, 18.3% visited a doctor
3.6. Trait characteristics
The trait characteristics of the three groups were compared
using one-way ANOVAs. Significant effects were further analyzed
using Tukey’s HSD post hoc comparisons.
The analysis of the hardiness questionnaire included 174 FW,
47 FM, and 93 CW, and found significant differences for the com-
mitment subscale (F(2,313) = 5.5, p < .005, partial eta squared =
.034) and for the challenge subscale (F(2,313) = 4.1, p < .05, partial
eta squared = .026). Tukey’s HSD post hoc comparisons found that
the CW group displayed less commitment than the FW group
(p < .05) and the FM group (p < .01), and less challenge than the
FM group (p < .05). Fig. 4 illustrates this graphically.
3.8. Coping strategies
No significant differences were found among the three groups
in either of the coping-strategy sub-scales.
3.9. Sex-role type
The responses to the BSRI questionnaire of 232 FW, 77 FM, and
119 CW were analyzed. We assessed the distribution of the partic-
ipants into the non-sex type, androgynous type, feminine type, and
masculine type using a chi-square test for independence, which
yielded a significant difference between the groups (v2
35:8; p < :001). The source of this effect was assessed using stan-
dardized residuals analyses, which found that the FM group tended
to be less female-typed (p < .001) and more male-typed by propor-
tion (p < .05) than the other groups, while the CW group tended to
be more female-typed (p < .001) and less-male typed (p < .01).
Table 1 details the distribution of the types within the three
The integration of women into army combat roles is not trivial.
While they are expected to cope with the intense military demands
and lifestyle of their unit exactly as their male counterparts do, fe-
male soldiers must also face additional strains due to their gender.
These may accumulate and increase the levels of stress experi-
enced by the female soldiers during service, subsequently interfer-
ing with their successful integration as well as potentially resulting
in health problems.
We found that female soldiers experienced more stress during
their BT period than male soldiers did, regardless of their type of
training. However, while female combat soldiers experienced al-
most the same intensity of stress during their BT as their male
counterparts, female soldiers in the non-combat control group
tended to show increased stress during the middle part of theirs.
Similarly, women serving in more traditionally female (medi-
cal) roles were more affected by burnout symptoms during the
middle term than others. However, they also tended to have higher
levels of self-efficacy by the end of their BT.
It was also found that women serving in combat units were
more likely than soldiers in the other two groups to seek medical
Women in the control group experienced increased stress dur-
ing their BT. While this finding may seem counterintuitive, for non-
combat soldiers, BT is expected to be the most stressful period of
the military service, and thus its conclusion may bring about a feel-
ing of relief and a sense of success, reflected in lower stress levels.
Having overcome all the challenges encountered during BT, they
may tend to believe in their ability to cope with any stress that
they would face during the rest of their service. Combat soldiers,
however, are only at the beginning of a particularly challenging ca-
reer when they leave BT, during which they establish a more pre-
cise evaluation of the challenges they are likely to encounter
during the rest of their service. Being able to assess these chal-
Fig. 3. Reported self-efficacy of the three experimental groups at the three times
commitment control challenge
Fig. 4. Hardiness sub-scales of the three experimental groups.
Distribution of participants according to their sex type.
R. Tarrasch et al./Personality and Individual Differences 50 (2011) 305–309
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lenges in relation to their own resources, it is not surprising that
they tend to feel only moderate levels of self-efficacy at the end
of their BT.
Soldiers in combat roles tended to feel more committed and
challenged while facing stress than the control group, likely due
to the higher discipline and combat demands associated with com-
bat BT. Female soldiers in combat BT tended to feel more commit-
ted, while male soldiers tended to see stressful demands as
challenges. This may be explained by the fact that gender typed
men and cross-gendered women have been suggested to exhibit
more type A behavior and the accompanying high motivation rates
The groups also differed in how they behaved in regard to their
sex roles. The members of each group set themselves different
expectations in regard to their expected gender behavior. For years,
society has expected men to be more task-oriented than women
and women to be more expressive than men. Such expectations
greatly influence the way members of each gender behave during
both routine life demands and in stressful situations. There are
two possible explanations for this study’s findings in this regard.
One is that women in a combat role, especially pioneers, have to ac-
cept masculine norms and behave accordingly in order to succeed,
even if doing so requires them to abandon their more comfortable,
familiar ways of living (Titunik, 2000). The other is that the differ-
ences existed before enrolling into the army, such that women
choosing a combat role possess an a priori tendency towards a more
masculine sex role. In favor of the first explanation, it has been pre-
viously reported that women soldiers are expected to adapt to the
governing masculine culture. Such adaptation demands an en-
hanced physical and emotional power, which sometimes interferes
with their gender identity (Chandler, Bryant, & Bunyard, 1995).
This study found that female soldiers react in a more extreme
manner than male soldiers while integrating into combat units.
They experience high stress levels for long periods of time, stress
for which BT represents only the beginning of their military ca-
reers. The abandoning of their gender roles can lead their coping
process while they integrate into a masculine culture, thereby
manifesting their commitment. This may explain their relatively
more frequent visits to the unit medical service. A possible expla-
nation for the outcomes is that although women soldiers who
identify with masculine norms and demands tend to adopt those
norms, being unaccustomed to them makes them less effective,
consume more energy, and aggravates outcomes.
Further research is needed in order to confirm and expand on
this study’s findings. It is important to clarify whether they result
from differences that already existed before recruitment to the
military service, which could explain why these particular women
chose these specific combat roles. It is also essential to understand
how female soldiers adapt to their new demands. While the first
clarification would shed light on the classification process, the lat-
ter is related primarily to the training process and subsequent
deployment. Tailor-made training can help these women to cope
more efficiently by using their available resources in a more skilled
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