U.S. Coast Guard Addresses Female Retention Gap

CWO Scott Card / USCG

Published Mar 29, 2019 8:52 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Coast Guard has published the results of a wide-scale Rand Corporation study on female servicemembers' retention, and it intends to institute a range of personnel policy changes in response to the findings. On average, female Coast Guard servicemembers depart the service earlier than their male counterparts, and the USCG as a whole is only 15 percent female. 

In a series of 164 focus groups with female and male servicemembers across the country, Rand solicited feedback on work environment concerns, opportunities for career advancement and the service's effects on personal life. The focus groups identified several key concerns: first, female participants said that bad leaders were routinely kept on or promoted, prompting those under them to leave. Male servicemembers expressed similar concerns. Female servicemembers also cited a culture of gender bias - that they had to work harder, were less trusted and respected than their male counterpartsm and might be assigned to sterotypically female activities that do not lead to promotion. (Male participants agreed that this could be a reason that women might decide to depart.) 

Personnel policies also make it harder for women, participants contended. The Coast Guard's weight standards are strict and linked squarely to body mass index. Exceeding the BMI limit requires the servicemember to pass a percent body fat test, and some female participants reported that this was not an appropriate measure of their abilities.

Sexual assault and sexual harassment also figured prominently among the reasons women would separate from the Coast Guard, including the fear of being assaulted by a shipmate while under way. Others reported the belief that women posted to isolated, far-flung units may face a heightened risk of assault. (Again, this was not a factor for male participants, but male participants agreed that this could be a reason for women to leave the service.)

Pregnancy is challenging in the Coast Guard as well, Rand found. Male servicemembers may not wish to fill in to cover for a woman's maternity leave, especially when a unit is already strapped for personnel. Some participants reported that they were accused of becoming pregnant  simply to avoid their Coast Guard duties. 

Female servicemembers also depart for "pull" factors - that is, better options elsewhere. With better pay, more chances for promotion, no long deployments away from home and family, and the perception of less gender discrimination, the civilian workplace presents a competitive option for female servicemembers, Rand found. 

The USCG has stood up a Personnel Readiness Task Force to address these and other issues. It is exploring policy changes that disproportionately affect women and underrepresented minorities, including easing tattoo restrictions, removing single-parent disqualifiers, and revising the service's weight standards.

“As I emphasized in my State of the Coast Guard Address, the Coast Guard aspires to be an employer of choice. This study will help drive key areas for improvement for women’s retention in the Service,” said Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz in a statement.