What is the military doing to retain its enlisted women?

Kaylah Jackson
April 30, 2019 - 4:12 pm
2nd Bomb Wing Public Affairs

(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Lillian Miller)

When Michele Jones enlisted in the Army in 1982, she was inspired by the “Be All You Can Be” motto but what she didn’t envision was staying in the service for 25 years and retiring as the Command Sergeant Major of the Army Reserve.

For some women, staying the course in their military career, attaining rank, and making retirement can be a challenge.

According to a report by the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), “Women in the Military. Where They Stand,”  the percentage of military women who are officers (including general officers, flag officers, and warrant officers) versus men is less than a two percent difference, however, when it comes to female non-commissioned officers (NCO) versus men there is a drastic difference.

“There was a time when we only had two, three, four women flag officers or general officers and you hardly ever saw a woman who was an E-8 or E-9,” said retired Navy captain and Director of Government Relations for SWAN, Lory Manning.

Only 11.8 percent of the Army’s active duty senior enlisted personnel (grades E-7 through E-9) are women, according to the report. The Air Force currently retains the largest female senior enlisted force with 20.3 percent while the Marine Corps has the lowest percentage of senior enlisted women at 5.6 percent.

“There are a lot more of them than there used to be but for some reason, we’re not retaining some of the senior enlisted women beyond the 20-year point, in the same way, we're retaining the officer women,” Manning continued.

For Jones, who made sergeant major in 14 years, she found her place as an NCO she says because of her personal strengths, characteristics, and what she wanted to contribute to the Army as an institution.

“One of the things I realized is that NCOs had more flexibility on how they trained, they had more flexibility on their own careers, they had more flexibility on developing soldiers…they were more hands-on,” said Jones.

Manning isn’t totally sure about what decisions point to women not staying in past retirement on the enlisted side but speculates age could be a contributing factor.

“I think the officers tend to be older because the enlisted women can start at 18 and they may hit 37, 38 and say ‘Hey, I have time now to get out of this and use my GI bill, get other training or maybe, now’s the ideal time for me to start a family,’” said Manning.

When it comes to the Coast Guard, only 12 percent of women serve longer than a decade. Five percent of enlisted Coast Guard will have a 25-year career in comparison to 12 percent of males who meet that many years of service, according to NavyTimes.

Why Do Women Leave the Coast Guard, and What Can Be Done to Encourage Them to Stay?
(Courtesy of the Rand Corporation)

Common concerns for female Coasties echoed in a RAND study include planning pregnancy around career development, gender bias, and accommodating spouses.

“If you have children and you’re in and you're single or you’re a dual military family, the hours of the childcare facilities do not typically accommodate,” said Jones. “And to get more women in positions and to keep them in the military, if you see more, more will come up. More will be engaged and want to say because they see women who look like them.”

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Jones sees a tier of obstacles that can be tackled to better support military women achieving hiring rank and helping them further their career. On the part of the individuals, she impressed on all servicewomen she encounters that “your career is your own,” but she also says the thinking at various military branches needs to change.  

"Across all the services, I think we need to do a better job, on the enlisted side, of encouraging women to stay...and we need to do a better job of retention of them once they hit that retirement eligibility," said, Manning.

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