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Research Question

  1. What explains gender differences in the officer career pipeline?

An ongoing concern in the Department of Defense is the lack of diversity among officers in the senior ranks. To address the gap in quantitative information on differences in the career progression of officers based on gender, as well as the factors that explain these differences, the authors analyzed career progression as a series of retention and promotion outcomes, using longitudinal data on officers to track cohorts of officers over their careers. The data include information on job-related characteristics, such as occupation, source of commission, and deployments, and on individual characteristics, such age and marital status (including dual-military status).

The report finds that gender differences in career progression can be explained partly by differences in job-related and individual characteristics and partly by differences in the association between these characteristics and the likelihood of achieving a given career milestone. For example, male and female officers with the same family status, in terms of marital status and age and presence of children, had different likelihoods of reaching several career milestones. Policies that reduce differences in job and individual characteristics will contribute to reducing the gender gap in officer career progression but will not eliminate it. Additional attention must be given to structural factors, including how retention decisions and the promotion process differ for male and female officers with the same characteristics, and to potential differences in factors that are more difficult to observe, such as gender differences in attitudes toward military service and performance.

Key Findings

The Largest Differences Between Male and Female Officers' Career Progression Occurred in the Probabilities of Being Retained as an O3, Being Promoted to O4, and Being Retained as an O5

  • The observed differences in job and individual characteristics between male and female officers explain some but not all of the differences in the likelihood of reaching retention and promotion milestones.
  • Among the differences in observed characteristics, family factors — specifically, marital status and age and presence of dependents — are consistently important. Women's lower likelihood of being in a tactical occupation, lower levels of deployment experience, and increased likelihood to have entered in a recent cohort were also notable contributors to gender differences in the career pipeline.
  • The observed differences in career progression between male and female officers are also partly explained by differences in the association between a given characteristic and the likelihood of achieving a given career milestone.
  • Several factors contributed to the portion of the gender gap attributable to differences in the association between characteristics and the likelihood of achieving a given career milestone, though no single factor was the primary contribution. That said, male and female officers with the same family status, in terms of marital status and age and presence of children, had different likelihoods of reaching several career milestones.
  • Overall, marital status and dependent status were generally major contributors to gender differences in officer career progression.
  • Among married officers, being a dual-military spouse appeared to have had little or no role in contributing to gender differences in career progression.
  • Entry year also contributed to the gender gap in career progression because female officers were less likely to be represented in earlier cohorts, and the association between entry year and retention and promotion differed between male and female officers in a way that led to lower retention and promotion rates for female officers.

Recommendations

  • Policies aimed at reducing differences among the characteristics of male and female officers will contribute to narrowing the gender gap in career progression. For example, policies that increase the representation of female officers in tactical occupations will reduce occupational differences between male and female officers and contribute to reducing the part of the gender gap in the retention and promotion outcomes attributable to observed differences.
  • Among policies that aim to reduce observed differences in characteristics, policies that target work-family balance could have an important impact on reducing the explained gender gap in career progression.
  • Additional attention must be given to structural factors, such as how retention decisions and the promotion process differ for male and female officers with the same characteristics, and to differences in factors that are more difficult to observe, such as differences in attitudes toward military service and performance.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Overview of Data and Methods

  • Chapter Three

    Descriptive Statistics and Regression Results

  • Chapter Four

    Decomposition of Gender Differences in the Likelihood of Achieving Career Milestones

  • Chapter Five

    Concluding Thoughts

  • Appendix A

    Blinder-Oaxaca Methodology

  • Appendix B

    Detailed Results

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and conducted within the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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