Less than 17 percent of the active duty military is made up of women, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Tuesday, an increase of about 1 percent since 2004.
Much of that gap can be attributed to attrition, the study found, because women are statistically 28 percent more likely than men get out before hitting retirement. To close it, the report recommended, the services and the office of the defense secretary need to develop guidance and monitoring to support the recruiting and retention of women.
The top reasons women decide leave service show “six themes, including family planning, sexual assault, and dependent care, as influencing separations,” according to GAO’s report.
The report focused on the years 2004 through 2018, from the early years of the Global War on Terror ― when multiple, successive deployments became the norm ― to the first days after the services implemented the repeal of a ban on women serving in direct-combat jobs.
“[The Defense Department] has also stated that recruiting and retaining women is important in order to reflect the nation’s population and ensure strong military leadership,” according to the report.
Those years also saw an uptick in women taking on a breadwinner role in their households, becoming more than half of students on college campuses and surpassing men to hold the majority of personal wealth in the U.S., but representation in the military grew only marginally.
More pointedly, exacerbating already low numbers of women serving, the percentage is even lower after 10 years of service, creating a dearth of women to serve in leadership roles.
During that time period, the Air Force remained the most diverse service in terms of gender, with female airmen making up 20.2 percent of the service in 2018. That was followed by the Navy with 19.6 percent, the Army with 15.1 percent and the Marine Corps with 8.6 percent.
That spread is different than it was in 2004. Though the Air Force and Army were still about 20- and 15 percent female, respectively, the Navy was less than 15 percent female and women made up just over 6 percent of the Marine Corps.
“We also found that although the percentage of female active-duty service members generally increased across the department from fiscal year 2004 through 2018, the percentage of female active-duty service members was higher for those with fewer years of service and generally decreased as years of service increased,” according to the report.
Studies reviewed by the GAO, including the 2011 Military Leadership Diversity Commission report, found that family issues were among the biggest factors for women leaving the military, including making the choice to have children and possibly experience career setbacks, as well as the difficulty of working long hours and spending months away for training and deployments while trying to raise children.
That report also found that more female service members are part of a dual-military couple than male service members, meaning it was less likely than a female service member’s spouse would be able to pick up any slack while trying to balance his or her own military career.
While these are issues the Pentagon has known about for years, with those in mind, GAO recommended that the services take a more proactive approach to recruiting and retaining women.
“DOD has identified that female recruitment and retention is important to diversity in the military, but the services do not have plans that include goals, performance measures, or timeframes to guide and monitor current or future efforts to recruit and retain female active-duty service members,” the report reads.
Language to that effect was included in the 2011 National Military Strategy, but GAO found that despite a general “goal” to recruit a force representative of the country, DoD officials shied away from any gender-specific messaging or setting any particular goals, for concern over them being confused for quotas.
“While we recognize the department’s concern about goals being misconstrued as quotas, goals are not quotas," according to the report, and there are several ways to set reasonable goals and track progress.
For example, the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services in 2017 that the services should set their benchmarks based on qualified recruits. That is, make the goal to keep the proportion of women in the services the same on day one as it is on year 20, which would represent a vast improvement in the attrition rate of women.
In addition to not providing guidance on recruiting and retaining women, GAO found, the Pentagon is also not making that a priority in its forthcoming update to the Diversity and Inclusion Stategic Plan, which will take the department through 2024.
“Until DoD provides clear guidance and the services establish plans for monitoring and guiding their efforts to recruit and retain female active-duty servicemembers, including establishing goals, performance measures, and timeframes, the department may continue to experience slow growth of the female population and miss opportunities to retain a valuable segment of the population for its active-duty force,” according to the report.
With that in mind, GAO recommended that OSD, as well as the service secretaries develop plans “with clearly defined goals, performance measures and timeframes” to facilitate and track recruiting and retention of women in the military.
In her response to the GAO, Elizbath Van Winkle, the Pentagon’s executive director of force resiliency, agreed with the recommendations.
“While neither the Department of Defense nor the military services set recruitment, accession or retention goals based on race or gender, DoD will continue to study the dynamics of female recruitment, accession and retention,” she wrote.
Increased maternity leave is a recent example of progress, she offered,
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT