Mid-career women leaving Coast Guard blame leadership, sexual assault

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Mid-career women are leaving the Coast Guard at a higher rate than their male counterparts and there are a lot of factors to blame for it.

A new study from the RAND Corporation, commissioned by the Coast Guard, found gender bias, sexual harassment, personal life factors and career opportunities were all reasons that mid-career women are leaving the service.

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“There’s a gap both for officers and enlisted and there is a cumulative retention gap that emerges in those first 10 years of service and then starts to stabilize,” said Kirsten Keller, senior behavioral scientist at RAND.

Last April, then-Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft said that the loss of mid-career women was one of the service’s biggest personnel concerns.

“Right now we are losing nearly 50 percent of a year group at between 10 and 12 years of service among our female officers. Why do they leave? And what do we do then to address that?” Zukunft said.

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 gap was slightly higher at 12.6 percent for women officers.

“Although the Coast Guard enjoys one of the highest retention rates among the five military branches, we must do better,” said Adm. Charles W. Ray, vice commandant of the Coast Guard. “This study is an important element in our broader effort to recruit and retain an inclusive and diverse workforce that reflects the American public we serve. It is every leader’s responsibility to identify and eliminate elements of our culture that may inhibit equal participation and opportunity in our service.”

The RAND study found work environment, personal and career concerns all led to the gap.

Focus groups of women said poor leadership within the work environment was a reason they left the Coast Guard.

Women said “male leaders are reluctant to mentor women; and that leaders were unaware of Coast Guard policies, particularly female-specific policies, or interpreted or implemented these policies inconsistently,” the report states.

The focus groups also pointed to men not trusting women’s opinions or not valuing their quality of work, as well as concerns about being sexually assaulted or harassed as other reasons for leaving.

By digging into personnel data, the study found disparities between the way women and men were given career assignments and opportunities.

“One of the things we found is that men are more likely to be pilots than are women and pilots in particular have a higher retention rate,” Keller said. “We also found that men are more likely than women to be afloat and again those in the afloat sectors have higher retention rates. In enlisted positions in particular there was some difficulty for women in that they didn’t get as much sea time on cutters except for high-endurance vessels. Because that limited some of their sea time, it also influenced that retention gap.”

Other more personal concerns are adding to the gap too, according to the study.

“Those with civilian spouses raised concerns about frequent moves that affect the spouse’s employment and a perceived lack of support from the Coast Guard community for husbands,” the study stated.

Women also brought up concerns about extended deployments and the impact they may have on their children.

Fixing the problem

Last year Zukunft made it clear he wanted to reverse the retention trend with women in the Coast Guard.

We want to “make sure we don’t have an environment within our service, a subculture if you will, that is inhospitable to our female officers. The other thing we are looking at is investing in child development centers. Those are just as critical as those other platforms we are buying. There’s a lot of tension between a career in the Coast Guard and then raising a family in the same time,” Zukunft said.

The report offers several ways to keep women in the service.

“We didn’t find any silver bullet solution because there were multiple factors that really influenced women’s retention,” Keller said. “We really tried to propose a series of initiatives that collectively might improve retention in the Coast Guard.”

The study suggests solutions like allowing service members to extend their evaluations if they feel parental leave restrictions will cause evaluation reports to suffer. Another suggestion is to leverage support from reserve members during parental leave.

When it comes to work environment, the study recommends developing a communication and education plan for leaders that ensures they understand female relevant polices and emphasizes the importance of adhering to them.

The study also suggests continuing to examine differences in retention trends between genders and tracking workforce data elements that are potential barriers to retention.

The Coast Guard’s Personnel Readiness Task Force will take the RAND study into account and is currently evaluating issues for women in the workforce. It is expected to release a final report in 2020.

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