Sexual Harassment and Gender Discrimination in the Active-Component Army: Variation in Most Serious Event Characteristics by Gender and Installation Risk
Aug 2, 2021
In February 2021, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered the armed services to take immediate action to address sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military, including by focusing on high-risk military installations. An improved understanding of the characteristics and context of sexual harassment and sexual assault events could inform the design of prevention efforts aimed at reducing the prevalence of such incidents. Recent research conducted in RAND Arroyo Center has explored these topics.
This research brief highlights the top-line findings from two projects that have implications for Army prevention strategies: an assessment of organizational characteristics of sexual assault and sexual harassment and an exploration of the types of sexual harassment or gender discrimination events experienced by Army soldiers.
RAND Corporation researchers examined the organizational and operational characteristics associated with the risk of sexual assault and sexual harassment at U.S. Army bases, within commands, and in career management fields. The analysis used U.S. Department of Defense administrative and personnel data, along with survey data from the 2014 RAND Military Workplace Study and the 2016 and 2018 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Personnel.
The results of these analyses showed considerable variation in the risk of sexual assault and sexual harassment across groups of soldiers, primarily among Army women. More specifically, the principal findings showed the following:
A notable finding was the connection between unit and command climate and rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment. Improving unit and command climate therefore might help reduce rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment. Furthermore, given the difference in risk across units, commands, and career fields, targeting prevention efforts at large units with high rates of sexual assault or sexual harassment could bring down total sexual assault and harassment rates. Indeed, 34 percent of all women soldiers who were sexually assaulted in 2018 were assigned to just the five highest-risk bases. The Army also should investigate differences among bases and commands that are associated with unexpectedly high risk of sexual assault and sexual harassment as a strategy for better understanding drivers of risk and differences that are associated with unexpectedly low risk to understand protective factors.
Because sexual harassment and sexual assault appear to be tightly linked, sexual harassment risk could serve as an early warning of sexual assault risk. This suggests that prevention of sexual harassment also might prevent sexual assault. Sexual harassment, however, might be easier to combat: It is more public and more frequent, providing leaders with opportunities to counsel and reprimand soldiers and establish professional workplace norms before inappropriate behaviors become crimes. Thus, a better characterization of sexual harassment (and gender discrimination) in the Army, which is the topic of the second piece of research reviewed here, could be used to train leaders and develop more-effective prevention tools and outcomes.
In the second research effort, RAND researchers developed profiles of active-component soldiers' self-reported most serious experiences of sexual harassment or gender discrimination. The profiles, which we developed using data from the 2018 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Personnel, describe the types of behaviors that occurred, characteristics of (alleged) perpetrators, and the time(s) and place(s) in which the experiences occurred.
The analysis also provides information about how the experiences of sexual harassment and gender discrimination vary for men and women between high- and non–high-risk installations and among high-risk installations. Consistent with the definition of total risk used in the analysis of organizational characteristics, a high-risk installation has rates of reported sexual harassment that are higher than the average rate experienced by all soldiers.
The results identify types of sexual harassment and gender discrimination experiences that are similar for men and women, circumstances in which these experiences are different, and whether the types of incidents are markedly different for soldiers who are stationed at high-risk installations. More specifically, researchers found the following:
Sexual harassment and gender discrimination prevention training materials should emphasize the most common behaviors and scenarios that service members experience outlined by this research: gender discrimination (especially among women); persistent and offensive discussions of and jokes about sex in the workplace (among both women and men); repeated attempts to establish an unwanted romantic or sexual relationship (among women); and insults related to men's masculinity, sexual orientation, or gender expression. Prevention efforts also should focus on the workplace as the setting for sexual harassment and gender discrimination events.
However, the data suggest that there is no need to tailor the content of training materials for the prevention of sexual harassment and gender discrimination for each individual installation. This conclusion is not meant to imply that all aspects of prevention approaches should be one-size-fits-all. As the results of the previous project indicated, targeting prevention efforts at specific installations using risk, career field, or such characteristics as climate could have a measurable effect on overall prevalence rates for sexual harassment and sexual assault.
Thus, it is possible to target prevention efforts using different risk characteristics but still use the same training content insofar as it focuses on types of behaviors that are common across all installations, regardless of risk.