Female retention a problem for the Coast Guard, study says

Retaining active-duty women in the Coast Guard is a persistent problem for the service as women leave at a higher rate than men, and female members blame poor leadership, gender discrimination, work burnout and family concerns as some of the main factors, according to a new study released by the Coast Guard.

Although the Coast Guard has a higher retention rate among women than other military services, Coast Guard leaders asked for the study as part of a broader initiative to improve retention and recruitment, and create a more inclusive workplace that better reflects U.S. society.

Retention gaps, according to the Rand Corporation study, emerge in the first 10 years of service and then stabilize. Among officers, 83.9% of men remain in the Coast Guard after five years, compared to 78.3% of women, creating a cumulative gap of 5.6%. At 10 years, the gap widens to 12.6% and at 19 years at 12.9%.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Shannon Eubanks pulls herself out from the Arctic Ocean during ice rescue training in 2018, about 715 miles north of Barrow, Alaska. Eubanks is a crewmember aboard the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy. Coast Guard photo/CPO NyxoLyno Cangemi

Among enlisted personnel, 71.1 % of men remain after four years of service, compared with 62.4% of women, for a gap of 8.7%. At both 10 and 19 years, just before members are eligible for retirement, the gap is 12.3%.

After meeting with over 1,000 active duty women and 127 men in focus groups across the country, researchers identified several root causes for women’s attrition:

  • Work environment: poor leadership and few female role models, concerns about sexual harassment and assault, unfair weight standards and procedures for measuring body fat, being undermanned and overworked, assignments to undesirable locations and finding civilian work that pays more with less stressful hours. Many described perceptions of bad leaders being retained and even promoted, and toxic commanders creating an ‘old boys’ club’ environment that excludes women. Others said they were treated differently than male peers, had to work twice as hard to prove themselves, and that men often didn’t trust their opinions or value their work.
  • Family concerns: frequent transfers and remote locations often limit a civilian spouse’s career, deployment separation and repeated transfers are tough on children, lack of affordable and quality child care, and the perception that pregnancies carry a stigma due to pregnancy restrictions and parental leave.

The study found that women are less likely than men to be married or have children while in the Coast Guard, and that at some point in their careers, women feel that they are forced to choose between family and the service.

“Regardless of a woman’s marital or parental status, family is an essential factor for many women in their decisions to leave or stay in the Coast Guard,” Kirsten Keller, one of the study’s authors, said in a statement. “This includes the influence of spouses, children and the impact pregnancy may have on career advancement potential.”

On the plus side, female members cited health care and retirement and educational benefits as the main reasons they stay in their jobs, as well as satisfaction with the mission and work of the Coast Guard.

Recognizing that “there is no silver bullet solution,” the study offered several recommendations for improvements. Those include updating Coast Guard personnel management systems to address the needs of women, single parents and two-career households, minimize the impact of parental leave on promotions and evaluations, and improve child care – especially in remote areas and for overnight duty.

The study also recommends modifying the weight standards policy, strengthening leadership training, and ensuring transparency in assignment policies that meet the needs of members’ personal lives.

The Coast Guard has already begun to address some of these retention barriers, and has created a Personnel Readiness Task Force to implement the study’s recommendations. A detailed plan of action is expected by 2020.

In his annual State of the Coast Guard address in Los Angeles in March, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl L. Schultz said the study “will drive key areas of improvement for women’s retention in the Service.”

Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz delivered his first 'state of the Coast Guard' address March 21 in Los Angeles. Coast Guard video image

Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz delivered his first ‘State of the Coast Guard’ address March 21 in Los Angeles. Coast Guard video image

As an immediate policy change, he announced surge staffing from the Coast Guard Reserve Corps to backfill members who are on convalescent and caregiver leave, including new parents. “Now our truly dedicated women can better focus on their families and their well-being without worrying about the impacts of their absence on their workplace and colleagues.”

The Coast Guard is also looking at easing the existing tattoo policy, removing single parent restrictions and revising the weight standards.

The admiral said a similar study will be undertaken this spring to examine retention of minorities.

“These actions are the first steps in a dedicated campaign to identify barriers to inclusion and to help find solutions that challenge the status quo,” Schultz said. “They are small ripples that will lead to a groundswell of cultural change.”

About the author

Pamela Glass

Pamela Glass is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for WorkBoat. She reports on the decisions and deliberations of congressional committees and federal agencies that affect the maritime industry, including the Coast Guard, U.S. Maritime Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prior to coming to WorkBoat, she covered coastal, oceans and maritime industry news for 15 years for newspapers in coastal areas of Massachusetts and Michigan for Ottaway News Service, a division of the Dow Jones Company. She began her newspaper career at the New Bedford (Mass.) Standard-Times. A native of Massachusetts, she is a 1978 graduate of Wesleyan University (Conn.). She currently resides in Potomac, Md.

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