Lack of Diversity in U.S. Coast Guard Greater in Higher Ranks; Comprehensive and Sustained Changes Recommended to Improve

For Release

August 11, 2021

Women and racial and ethnic minorities are underrepresented at all levels of the United States Coast Guard (USCG)—especially in higher ranks and among senior leadership—and comprehensive changes across the organization are needed to improve diversity rates among all ranks, finds new research from the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center (HSOAC).

Initiated by the Coast Guard, this research is part of the service's effort to address its low level of racial and ethnic minority representation and build a more inclusive workforce. Currently 31% of Coast Guard members are racial or ethnic minorities, compared with a 42% average across all services.

The USCG outperforms benchmarks for racial and ethnic diversity among enlisted men (except for Asian and Pacific Islanders) and has more nonminority female officers than any other branch. However, it does not attract its share of eligible, service-inclined women to its enlisted ranks or have adequate representation of Black men or women from racial or ethnic minority groups. Additionally, the report finds that the proportion of both women and racial and ethnic minorities declines as rank increases, especially for officers.

“The lack of diversity in the Coast Guard is cumulative and compounds with every step in the career lifecycle,” said Nelson Lim, lead author of the report. “As a result, the number of women and racial and ethnic minorities in the pool of potential leaders narrows at each stage and results in a less diverse senior leadership.”

Eligibility requirements limit the USCG's ability to tap into diverse talent pools for some racial and ethnic minority groups, while men tend to be more interested than women in military service, the report finds. Because of its smaller size, the Coast Guard has fewer local recruiters than other military services, so changes in advertising and outreach are necessary to improve recruiting of women and racial and ethnic minority members.

Early career decisions and inconsistencies in career development also contribute to the lack of diversity in higher ranks. Underrepresented minorities are more likely to go into administrative roles, which are less likely than operational roles to lead to leadership opportunities. Further, survey findings highlight perceptions of bias in the distribution of educational, command, and special assignment opportunities, especially among enlisted women and Black members.

Data suggest that discrepancies in the advancement and promotion processes in the Coast Guard affect diversity but are largely based on individual service histories. While the report finds no indication of bias in promotion boards, it does find that minority officers are less likely than white men to have occupational experiences associated with higher promotion rates. Women also view the service's career progression processes as less fair compared to their male counterparts.

Women and Black personnel have lower retention rates than their majority counterparts, leaving fewer of them available to serve in more senior ranks. Data suggest that retention patterns for these groups tie back to the evaluation, advancement, and promotion systems, but survey respondents most commonly cite poor experiences with their immediate leadership as the most common factor in considering leaving the service. Other factors such as work-life balance, job dissatisfaction, and lack of similar role models also play a role.

Survey and focus group findings suggest the Coast Guard could do more to actively promote diversity, equity, and inclusion at all levels. Notably, some respondents indicate a lack of trust in leaders at all levels related to DEI issues and in the implementation of processes designed to protect against discrimination. Some also perceive that retaliation is a common response to allegations of discrimination.

“The bottom line is that the Coast Guard needs to take much more decisive action to meet executive and congressional branch demands to improve diversity top-to-bottom,” Lim said. “The Commandant's proactive steps to address these challenges are important, but there is no quick fix, and it will take years of consistent, comprehensive effort to make lasting changes.”

The authors suggest 40 systemic improvements to bolster efforts across the personnel lifecycle from recruiting through career development, advancement and promotions, retention, and overall climate. These include:

  • Implement data-driven outreach policies, reevaluate current eligibility requirements, and adapt advertising strategies to help recruit a more diverse base.
  • Ensure that women and racial and ethnic minorities are competitive for career advancements and promotions as well as expand mentoring opportunities and increase the transparency of the promotion process.
  • Expand opportunities for leadership training to address the potential impact of poor-quality leadership on retention, and examine the root cause of early-career racial and ethnic minority separations to help retain a more diverse force.
  • Establish a DEI office and review the Equal Opportunity complaint process to improve trust and members' perceptions.
  • Ensure current policies adequately address concerns about racism in local communities.

This research was sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard Office of Diversity and Inclusion (CG–127) and conducted within the Personnel and Resources Program of HSOAC, a federally funded research and development center operated by the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation for DHS.

Other authors of the report, “Improving the Representation of Women and Racial/Ethnic Minorities Among United States Coast Guard Active-Duty Members,” are Kimberly Curry Hall, Kirsten Keller, David Schulker, Louis Mariano, Miriam Matthews, Lisa Saum-Manning, Devon Hill, Brandon Crosby, Leslie Payne, Linda Cottrell, and Clara Aranibar.

About RAND

RAND is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.