Racial disparity in Army officer promotions has improved since service removed photos from selection process
Stars and Stripes December 4, 2023
The disparity between promotion rates of white and non-white Army officers has narrowed in the first two years under a policy to remove photos and data that identify an officer’s race and gender at promotion boards, according to new research from the Rand Corp.
Though there’s not enough data to say the policy is effective, it’s promising, and the Army should continue to monitor it, said Maria Lytell, lead author of the research organization’s new report “Striving for Diversity: Observations on Racial and Ethnic Talent in the Regular Army’s Senior Officer Corps.”
The Army put the change into practice Aug. 1, 2020, to address discrimination, prejudice and bias, and criticism that its highest ranks lacked diversity. Rand found minority officers in the ranks of captain, major and lieutenant colonel are more likely to remain in the Army than white officers, though they have lower promotion rates. The reason why remains unclear, the report concluded.
“We stopped our analysis at January 2022, so we can continue monitoring and if it continues to trend in that direction of reducing those differences, then that might be indicative of an effective policy,” Lytell said.
Those officers who make it to higher ranks such as colonel are more likely to be white, according to the report.
Previous research has shown some of these trends, especially that retention and promotion can offset each other, Lytell said.
“It’s not a brand-new story, but it’s worth kind of showing it’s a persistent story, unfortunately,” she said.
Across the Army’s junior officers, diversity has increased in the past 15 years, with the proportion who were racial and ethnic minorities increasing from 29% in fiscal 2005 to 33% in fiscal 2020, according to the report. Of that 33%, 11% were Black, 10% Hispanic, 9% Asian American and Pacific Islander and 3% from other racial or ethnic minorities.
When looking at the lowest rank of officers — lieutenants — about 90% are retained, likely because they had not completed their service obligation. However, for those who do leave, minority officers were more likely to do so because negative performance or conduct issues, and white officers were more likely to leave for medical or health reasons, according to the report. Lytell said a deeper examination into data that was unavailable for this report would be needed to look for potential bias and discrimination in these early separations.
At captain, when officers typically have their first opportunity to choose whether they stay or go, about 49% of white officers stay in the service while retention rates among minority groups range from 51% and 64%, according to the report.
Promotion to major was the first rank in which Lytell said research began to show significant variance in who moves ahead. Research showed Asian-American officers were promoted 2.5% less than white officers. The gaps were larger for Hispanic officers, 3.3%, Native Americans at 3.6% and Black officers at 5.1%.
White officers were also more likely to receive promotions earlier than their peers, which is known as “below the zone promotion,” according to the report.
Further research is needed to understand why this is happening because there are so many variables that play into promotion that could also play a factor outside of bias and discrimination, such as occupational specialty, previous assignments and the competitiveness of that year’s promotion board, Lytell said.
Studies on other service branches have shown that these factors are more likely the cause of the discrepancy than bias, she said.
The officer research brief is part of a larger report titled “Retention of Racial-Ethnic Minorities in the Regular Army,” which found similar separation statistics among noncommissioned officers.
The report recommends the Army provide more training and education to junior-level leaders on counseling and evaluating soldiers because their opinions factor heavily into promotion and discipline decisions.
When junior soldiers and officers are grappling with personal challenges such as a death in the family, financial burdens or accessing safe child care, a leader can have a significant impact on whether the situation escalates to something that could affect careers.
Managing these challenges often falls to company commanders who might be too young to have gone through these things personally, Lytell said.
“We’ve got to help these captains and the junior NCOs with how to deal with this stuff,” she said. “It comes with maturity and age and experience. … It’s a lot to put on these young people.”
However, the retention rates among minority groups are a positive trend, Lytell said, and the report recommends the Army share this story.
“It’s pretty persistent on the enlisted and the officer side that minority groups are more likely to stay, so the Army must be doing something right,” she said.