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Why are so many women leaving the Coast Guard?

Incoming first-year students, or swabs, arrive for “Reporting-In Day,” or R-Day, at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, New London, Conn., June 27, 2016.

LISA A. FERDINANDO/U.S. COAST GUARD

By JULIA BERGMAN | The Day | Published: March 30, 2019

NEW LONDON, Conn. (Tribune News Service) — While there is no "silver bullet" solution, the Coast Guard should develop more equitable personnel policies to address the large number of women leaving the service, a new study says.

The Coast Guard wanted to find out why women are leaving at a much higher rate than men, so it hired the RAND Corporation to study the issue and come up with recommendations to better retain women. RAND released its findings in a 200-page study on Friday. The last study of this kind was done in 1990.

The gender gap particularly emerges between five and 10 years of service for both officers and enlisted personnel.

At the five-year mark, nearly 83.9 percent of male officers in the Coast Guard stay, compared to 78.3 percent of female officers — a gap of 5.6 percent. At the 10-year mark, the gap widens to 12.6 percent.

Among enlisted personnel, 71.1 percent of men stay in the Coast Guard after four years of service compared to 62.4 percent of women — a gap of 8.7 percent. At the 10-year mark, the gap is 12.3 percent. The minimum active-duty enlistment period for the Coast Guard is four years.

While similar trends are observed in the other military services, the Coast Guard's retention rates are relatively high in comparison, the study says.

"Although the Coast Guard enjoys one of the highest retention rates among the five military branches, we must do better," Vice Command Adm. Charles W. Ray said Friday in a statement following the public release of the report.

The Coast Guard's top officer, Adm. Karl Schultz, has directed a personnel task force, led by Ray, to "identify immediate opportunities" to implement the findings. The study recommends that the Coast Guard continue to monitor gender gaps in retention, and the effectiveness of policies and initiatives aimed at closing those gaps.

"This study is an important element in our broader effort to recruit and retain an inclusive and diverse workforce that reflects the American public we serve. It is every leader's responsibility to identify and eliminate elements of our culture that may inhibit equal participation and opportunity in our service," Ray said.

The Coast Guard, like the other military services, has long been dominated by white men. Women make up almost 15 percent of the Coast Guard's active-duty force while men make up 85 percent. The service also lacks racial diversity. Hispanics make up 13.7 percent of the active-duty force while African-Americans and Asians represent 5.9 percent and 2 percent, respectively. The Coast Guard will be carrying out a study, similar to the one released Friday, to examine how to better retain minorities.

RAND's study points out that since leaders are promoted from within the Coast Guard, the higher numbers of women leaving reduces "the supply of potential female leaders." A quick look at the Coast Guard's current senior leadership team shows that men hold 55 of the positions, including the top three, while women hold 13.

In addition to analyzing Coast Guard personnel data from the past 12 years, the authors of the RAND study held focus groups with 1,010 women and 127 men serving on active duty in the Coast Guard in locations across the country.

Participants were asked broad questions about their career choices, retention factors and what the Coast Guard could do to better retain women. The questions purposefully were broad to allow participants to raise issues "organically," said Kirsten Keller, one of the authors of the study.

For female participants, career factors were not as important as work environment, while the reverse was true for male participants, the study says.

Despite not being specifically asked about gender bias and discrimination, more than 80 percent of the female focus groups brought that up as a reason women leave the Coast Guard.

"Participants expressed the belief that they were treated differently than male peers, had to work twice as hard as men to prove themselves, and felt that men often did not trust their opinions or value the quality of their work," the study says.

Female participants also consistently mentioned experiences with poor leadership, including "bad leaders" being retained and promoted, and "toxic commanders creating an 'old boys' club' environment." They also said some male leaders are reluctant to mentor women for fear it would be perceived as having an inappropriate relationship with the opposite sex.

Many of the focus group participants — both male and female — expressed frustration with inadequate leadership training, and leaders not having adequate qualifications or training to be in a management role.

A mid-grade female officer, who asked not to be identified because she still is serving in the Coast Guard and wanted to be able to speak candidly without fear of retaliation, said it's a daily question for her whether to stay in and address the barriers facing women or get out.

Some women said they wanted to stay in the Coast Guard to serve as role models for junior female personnel.

The study recommends expanding opportunities for leadership development with emphasis on creating an "inclusive environment" and on mentorship, including mentoring junior female members. It also recommends that all leaders be educated on female-specific policies, such as having adequate breastfeeding facilities.

"We've heard the voices of Coast Guard women committed to both their careers and their families," Schultz said during his State of the Coast Guard address on March 21.

He announced a new policy to use staffing from reserves to fill in for members on convalescent and caregiver leave, including new parents, a recommendation of the RAND study, and plans to ease restrictions on tattoos and revise "outdated weight standards," another recommendation from the RAND study.

Other consistent factors brought up by female participants include weight standards that they felt were "especially harsh" for them, such as taping methods used to assess body fat that don't take into account different female body types, sexual assault and harassment, and feelings of being understaffed and overworked, which men expressed, as well.

Female participants said personal factors — such as the influence of spouses or children, and difficulties dating and development of friendships — also influenced decisions to stay in versus get out. Many have found the assignment process to be unpredictable and frustrating, and said receiving assignments to undesired locations, such as those far from family or in remote places, can drive women out.

Kerry Karwan, 43, who retired after serving 20 years in the Coast Guard at the rank of lieutenant commander, said multiple times during her career she was placed in jobs to fulfill the "needs of the service."

"But when it came my turn to ask for opportunities for job-enhancing and promotion purposes, they would say no," she said.

Karwan said she would've liked to participate in the focus groups, and noted that members of the reserves, civilians working for the Coast Guard and retirees were not surveyed.

"Why aren't they asking those of us who did get out why we got out? How can you make any good decisions when you didn't ask the right group?" Karwan, 43, who lives in California, said during a recent phone interview.

Kimberly Hall, one of the study's authors, said that's because the Coast Guard wanted to do a "deep dive" into active-duty personnel and identify the root causes surrounding that population leaving the service.

A retired female officer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said she also felt a target demographic was missed. She said she left the Coast Guard because she was discriminated against, bullied and threatened for speaking out against a toxic workplace environment. When workplace climate issues arise, leaders are not held accountable to address them, she said, adding that there should be greater transparency around the responses to workplace climate surveys.

The Coast Guard recently came under fire after an inspector general report found that leadership at the Coast Guard Academy and at headquarters failed to protect a black, female officer, who works as an instructor at the academy, for reporting bullying by her superiors. Top Coast Guard officials, including the previous commandant, were aware of her allegations, yet the inspector general report indicates that no one was held accountable. One of her superiors later was removed from his position as department head in relation to a separate bullying case.

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