More women are joining the military, but they leave at much higher rates than men, study shows

Elizabeth Howe
May 20, 2020 - 12:07 pm
Future Female Marine Recruits

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More and more women have joined the military in recent years -- but a watchdog report shows that they are also leaving the military at higher rates than their male counterparts. 

The recently released Government Accountability Office report, ordered by Congress in 2018, looked at trends in gender breakdowns across the Department of Defense from 2004 to 2018. The report found that all branches except the Army saw an increase in the overall female percentage of their force. 

Overall, the force grew from 15.1 percent female to 16.5 from 2004 to 2018. The Navy saw the most significant increase over the period from 14.7 percent female to 19.6 percent. The Air Force maintained the highest percentage of female members which make up nearly a fifth of its force. And the Army saw the only decrease in its percentage female from 15.3 percent in 2004 to 15.1 percent in 2018. 

The shifts were largely multidirectional, however. While the Navy and the Marine Corps saw consistent growth over the 15-year period, the Army and Air Force both saw significant fluctuations in their female percentages in both directions. 

And while the overall change from 2004 to 2018 was a positive one for the force, these same increases in recruitment aren't translating over to retention. Females leave the military at a 28 percent higher rate than males. 

The report suggests that neglecting to make significant enough changes in female recruitment and retention limits the benefits the DoD can gain from half the potential recruit pool. Additional work needs to be done to determine what differences between the genders are leading to these higher attrition rates. 

Military leaders lack specific strategies to retain and promote women, minorities

The report cited six significantly prevalent concerns that lead to women leaving the service, including work schedules, organizational culture, family planning, dependent care, deployments and sexual assault.

Reports of sexual assault within the military increased an additional 3 percent during fiscal year 2019. The report's focus groups indicated ongoing problems with culture and the processes and resources DoD has in place to assist victims of sexual assault. 

Here's what a 3 percent increase in DoD sexual assault reports really looks like

The GAO report recommended that DoD provide each of the services with guidance so they could "develop plans with goals, performance measures, and timelines" in order to address ongoing problems with female recruitment and retention efforts and increase the effectiveness of those two goals. DoD agreed with the recommendation. 

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Reach Elizabeth Howe on Twitter @ECBHowe.

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