Coast Guard Struggles to Retain Women, According to Study
A newly released RAND Corporation study finds that the Coast Guard struggles to retain and advance women due to an array of gender related issues. The study used focus group analysis, statistical data, and relevant previous studies to identify the root causes for attrition of women in the Coast Guard and to develop recommendations to “help mitigate identified barriers to retaining women.” The U.S. Coast Guard Office of Diversity and Inclusion requested the study.
The study found the retention rate of active duty enlisted women was about 12.3 percent less than men at the 10 year career mark between 2005 and 2016. The study found that a significant amount of women leave the Coast Guard between 10 and 12 years of service.
Among the reasons for poor retention, the study identified leadership, gender bias and discrimination, weight standards, sexual harassment and assault, and workload and resource issues as their primary concerns.
Focus groups found that male leaders, who make up a majority of Coast Guard leadership, are reluctant to mentor women. Participants indicated a desire for more female leaders to act as role models and mentors. Male focus groups also saw leadership as a key factor in retention but gave it slightly less importance than the female focus groups.
Female focus groups cited gender discrimination and bias as a strong factor contributing to their decision to leave the Coast Guard.
According to the study, “Female participants expressed the belief that men and women were treated differently; that women had to work twice as hard as men to prove themselves; and that men often did not trust their opinions or value the quality of their work, particularly in male-dominated ratings or specialties. Some women also perceived an ‘old boys’ club’ culture from which they felt excluded or that they had to tolerate inappropriate comments.”
Conversely, women also noted that when a woman does interact with her male peers, she can be subject to rumors of engaging in a sexual relationship and receives stigma not given to her male counterpart.
Male focus groups “acknowledged that those could be reasons that women choose to leave the Coast Guard,” but did not see gender bias as a factor in retaining men.
Women also viewed weight standards as failing to align with job ability and pointed out problematic ways of measuring body fat, such as taping. Weight standards also fail to consider factors like childbirth and varying body types.
Women noted that sexual harassment and assault is also an influential reason for leaving the Coast Guard. The study noted, “Some participants commented that they feared being assaulted while underway and noted that units with only one or two women assigned and units in remote, isolated environments also tended to experience sexual harassment or assault more often than other units.”
Both female and male participants noted feelings that they were understaffed and overworked, leading to burnout and work-life balance issues.
Women in the Coast Guard also noted significant career and personal concerns impacting retention.
Among career concerns, women noted experiencing bias in advancement and being placed in “stereotypically female activities” that are less likely to support career advancement. Women also raised concerns about assignments in remote areas and/or without other women, reiterating concerns of harassment and assault.
Female and male participants agreed that greater civilian opportunities would increase retention.
Female and male Coast Guard members discussed feeling forced to choose between their career and their family. Roughly 52 percent of married Coast Guard women are married to active-duty service members while roughly 7 percent of men are, exacerbating the issue for women in the service.
Both men and women raised concerns about being away from their children and the impact of extended deployments on their family, an issue magnified when both parents are service members. Women discussed the need for affordable, quality childcare. While men agreed with these concerns, the study notes, “some men viewed their wives as being responsible for child care; therefore, some men did not view children as affecting their retention decisions.”
Many women also felt restricted from career advancement due to the timing of their pregnancies or being forced to delay having a family to maintain their service career.
The study found, “Women also perceived a general stigma toward women from colleagues—mainly male—frustrated at having to fill in when women are on parental leave. In addition, women described being accused of getting pregnant just to get out of duties or having to go underway. Participants also raised concerns about a lack of breastfeeding support, including a lack of appropriate facilities and the reluctance of some commanders to allow proper breaks for pumping breast milk.”
Statistical personnel data affirmed the underlying career and personnel characteristics causing differences in male and female retention.
Ultimately, the study suggested a three pronged approach including updating personnel management systems, developing and implementing communication plans and strengthening leadership education, and promoting accountability.
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