Where are all the Coast Guard’s mid-career women going?

Mid-career women in the Coast Guard are leaving at a much higher rate than other demographics.

The Coast Guard is trying to figure out where all of its mid-career women are going.

Outgoing Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft says one of the service’s biggest personnel concerns is the loss of women who have served a decade in the force.

“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 at an April 11 Defense Writers Group event in Washington.

The Coast Guard commissioned a study to find out why that particular group is atrophying; especially when the service’s other retention rates are so high. Zukunft said he expects that study to be out in about a year.

The Coast Guard has the best reenlistment rate of any military branch. Around 92 percent of first year Coast Guardsmen reenlisted last year. And more than 40 percent of the Coast Guard’s enlisted recruits are still on active duty after 20 years and 60 percent of officers stay on active duty 20 years or more.

“There is a huge savings in not having to retrain your workforce, but more importantly you retain that experience which means even though your operations become more risky you can do that more safely and effectively as well,” Zukunft said.

The Coast Guard has large success with training its women as well. The Coast Guard Academy is nearly 40 percent women, the highest of any military academy.

“Our female cadets are just hitting it out of that park. Two years ago we had a Fulbright Scholar. Our regimental command is mostly female. But what happens 10, 11 [or] 12 years out?” Zukunft said of the mid-career Guardsmen.

Zukunft said pushed diversity in the Coast Guard through reading lists talking about hidden bias and embracing Lean In Circles.

Lean In Circles try to lessen the leadership gap for women in the workplace by opening up dialogues about gender bias.

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.


Retention as a whole is something near and dear to the Coast Guard.

Zukunft told Federal News Radio earlier this year, the way the service is keeping such a larger percentage of its force is through careful policy crafting, attentive leadership and programs that help circumvent the military’s rigid promotion system.

“It really begins with good leadership. Leaders that really do go to bat for their people, knowing your people and not just what do they qualify, what’s their name, but going the extra mile to say, ‘Hey, here’s someone who’s having some struggles in their relationship at home, they’re having some financial difficulty, I think they might have a drinking problem. I’m going to confront them on it.’ But not in a punitive way, in a ‘I care about you [way]’,” Zukunft said. “Our leaders really, truly do look out for their people and not for themselves.”

But Coast Guard isn’t the only one struggling with retention of mid-career women.

“There is concern across all of the branches at mid-career retention for women versus men. All of the services in varying career fields, at varying points but still within that mid-range of a 20 year career, they are experiencing challenges with women leaving at higher rates,” said Janet Wolfenbarger, chairwoman of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services.

The committee is guiding the military as a whole to possibly retaining more mid-career women with recommendations like making policy changes that ease transitions of service members between components and even military services easier.

The Defense Department already adopted one of the committee’s recommendations, which is to start exit surveys to assess why the attrition level for women is higher than men at certain career points.

Another issue affecting women mid-career is options for maternity leave.

In 2016, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced an increase in maternity leave to 12 weeks and expanded paternity leave to three weeks.

Wolfenbarger said the committee found there need to be some tweaks to that, specifically how it’s used. The committee recommended allowing flexible, noncontinuous parental leave by request.

“Although current maternity and parental leave policies are a strong step in the right direction, more can be done to tailor leave to families’ unique situations,” the report stated. The flexible option “is one potential way to support a service member after a child joins the member’s family, whether through birth or adoption. The committee believes allowing noncontinuous leave, when requested, could help service members better balance their unique family needs during critical junctures of their lives and, in turn, help support retention efforts.

The committee also suggested removing the stipulation that a couple needs to be married to receive full parental leave benefits

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