The U.S. Coast Guard’s Human Capital Strategy and its Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan 2015–2018 state that the Coast Guard “will attract, recruit, and retain a workforce from all segments of American society to create a high-performing 21st century workforce.” A key part of this objective is the advancement and retention of women in the Coast Guard. However, despite high retention rates overall compared with those in the other military services, the data indicate that the Coast Guard still retains women at a lower rate than it retains men. This gap exists for both officers and enlisted members, with cumulative retention gaps between men and women emerging in the first ten years of service and then stabilizing.
A new RAND Corporation report confirms that women leave the active-duty Coast Guard at higher rates than men. The study conducted a statistical analysis of Coast Guard personnel data to examine gender differences in retention trends and whether certain career and personnel characteristics could help explain the gender gap in retention.
The study also conducted 164 focus groups with 1,010 active-duty Coast Guard women to better understand potential barriers to female retention; 27 focus groups with 127 active-duty men were also conducted to help identify retention factors that resonate with both men and women and those factors that may be unique to women.
RAND found that experiences with poor leadership can cause women to leave and participants said there is a scarcity of female role models. Women reported feeling stress related to perceived unfairness of weight standards and procedures for measuring body fat. They also had concerns about discrimination, sexual harassment and assault, and reported experiencing “burnout” due to being undermanned and overworked.
Furthermore, female berthing restrictions can reduce opportunities for women to get sea time, which in turn can limit advancement. They also reported finding the assignments process frustrating and unpredictable, and said repeatedly receiving assignments in undesired locations can drive them out.
For Coast Guard couples, managing two successful active-duty careers is challenging, especially when there is a lack of colocation.Deployment separation and repeated transfers can be stressful for children as well as spouses; it can also be difficult to find affordable, quality child care.
As a result of the constraints, women often feel they need to “time their pregnancies” to fit within their career milestones and worry that they face noncompetitive evaluation reports and stigma due to pregnancy restrictions and parental leave.
The RAND report makes several recommendations to better meet the needs of Coast Guard’s current and future workforce:
- Augment unit manpower during members’ parental leave through the Coast Guard’s Active Duty for Operational Support program and allowing women to transition to Temporary Limited Duty status to open billets for other members.
- Minimize the impact of parental leave on evaluations and promotion by allowing women to extend their evaluation period, extend their current assignments for additional functional time at a unit, and to delay their promotion window.
- Develop a centralized information repository of child care options to include information on local child care options members have used in the past.
- Consider modifying the Weight and Body Fat Standards Program to minimize potential negative impacts on female members.
- Explore creative solutions to female berthing limitations, such as more flexible privacy options that could enable women access to boats without permanent physical barriers in place.
- Communicate and educate leaders and members on female-specific Coast Guard policies and hold leaders accountable to uniform policy implementation.
- Expand opportunities for comprehensive Coast Guard leadership development training that would include providing tools to create an inclusive work environment.
- Emphasize to assignment officers the importance of assignment policies designed to meet the needs of members’ personal lives and increase transparency of assignment process.
- Continue to monitor retention trends and track retention intentions and reasons for attrition in a consistent manner over time.
- Ensure workforce data tracks relevant variables in a comprehensive manner.
A complementary analysis of U.S. Coast Guard personnel data shows that some underlying differences in the career and personnel characteristics of Coast Guard women and men appear to contribute to the gender differences in retention, in that portions of the retention gap could be related to differences in occupations, deployment tempo, and family status.
A plurality of enlisted women work in service or support ratings, followed by operational ratings and engineering ratings, while prevalence among enlisted men is the reverse. For women, service and support ratings have the highest retention, and operational ratings the lowest. On the other hand, men’s average retention levels hardly vary in the three rating categories.
For officer occupations, men have more than triple the likelihood of being pilots than women have, and pilots have substantially higher retention rates than other officers have.
Men are more likely than women to be afloat, and those in the afloat sector consistently have higher retention than the ashore sector for both men and women. Furthermore, for enlisted members, sea time on cutters other than the high-endurance vessels (378s and National Security Cutters) was particularly limited for women.
The indicators of family status show that women were less likely than men to be married or have children while in the Coast Guard, which also contributes to retention gaps. However, the fact that members make decisions regarding whether to get married or have children in conjunction with retention decisions (e.g., might choose to separate in order to have children) makes cause-and-effect relationships between family status and retention difficult to determine.
Although the analysis of personnel data highlighted some potential contributors to the retention gap, RAND says the personnel data analyzed cannot explain most of the retention gap. The analysis was limited by the data available, as well as by the ability to quantify some of the retention factors identified in the focus groups and the complexity of the decision-making process.