Coast Guard Human Resources Chief: 'Totality of Events' Lead Women to Leave

Rear Admiral William G. Kelly. (DoD Photo)
Rear Admiral William G. Kelly. (DoD Photo)

NEW LONDON -- The chief of human resources for the Coast Guard, responding to a recent study that looked at why so many more women than men are leaving the service, said there was no big surprise in the findings. Rather, they pointed to a "totality of events" that force women to make a decision whether or not to stay in, he said.

A study from the RAND Corp. made public last week detailed the wide-ranging reasons women leave the Coast Guard, from experiences with poor leadership to family decisions.

At the 10-year mark, the retention gap between men and women is 12.6 percent for officers and 12.3 percent for enlisted personnel.

"Our entire service needs to take a pause and read the study, digest that study and have discussions about the study," including leaders at "every level," Rear Adm. William Kelly said during a sit-down interview Wednesday at the Coast Guard Academy.

"Our leaders need to understand that our workforce is talking to us. ... If we're deaf to that, we will struggle with these same retention issues going forward," he said.

The Coast Guard already is working to address some of the issues raised in the study, including revising weight standards to include the methods used to assess body fat, and establishing a new policy to use staffing from reserves to fill in for members on convalescent and caregiver leave, including new parents.

Kelly, who oversees recruitment, retention, assignments and the Coast Guard's diversity and inclusion program, said he'd also like to look into changes to the Coast Guard's temporary separation policy, which allows members to leave for two years and then come back and serve. The Coast Guard is not retaining those who take advantage of the policy at the level it would like. Kelly said the service needs to look into how it's engaging with personnel while they are temporarily on leave, and whether there are any barriers to coming back in.

The RAND study, which included focus groups with about 1,000 women serving on active duty in the Coast Guard, found that for women, work environment was more important than career factors in terms of deciding whether to stay in. The reverse was true for men.

Despite not being specifically asked about gender bias and discrimination, more than 80 percent of the female focus groups brought that up as a reason women leave the Coast Guard.

Kelly said a "very subtle" change made in this regard is the removal of pronouns in evaluations for Coast Guard personnel, referring to them as "this officer" or "this enlisted person" as opposed to "he" or "she." That helps eliminate the potential for "biases to creep into the evaluation system, which drives the promotion system," he said.

Overall, women make up almost 15 percent of the Coast Guard's active-duty force. The Coast Guard's list of senior leadership shows men hold 55 of the positions, including the top three, and women hold 13. No women were on the list of those most recently selected for promotion to admiral.

The RAND study points out that since leaders are promoted from within the Coast Guard, the higher numbers of women leaving reduces "the supply of potential female leaders."

Women surveyed said some male leaders are reluctant to mentor women for fear it would be perceived as having an inappropriate relationship with the opposite sex. Some women said they wanted to stay in the Coast Guard to serve as role models for junior female personnel.

Many of the focus group participants -- both male and female -- expressed frustration with inadequate leadership training, and leaders not having adequate qualifications or training to be in a management role.

While enlisted personnel receive formal leadership training at several points throughout their career, there are very few of these opportunities after someone graduates from the Coast Guard Academy or Officer Candidate School, Kelly said. The Coast Guard is looking into providing training to all mid-grade officers, an inflection point in their careers, and to ensuring there's funding appropriated to make that happen.

Kelly has about a month left on the job -- his next assignment is superintendent of the academy -- and in that time he'd like to "tee up" several diversity and inclusion initiatives, including one to diversify the boatswain's mate rating, the most common in the Coast Guard.

Boatswain's mates perform a variety of tasks associated with deck maintenance, small boat operations and navigation, and supervise all personnel assigned to a ship's deck force or shore unit.

Of the 4,765 boatswain's mates in the Coast Guard, 350 are women, and 92 are African American, Kelly said. They are the only enlisted members in the Coast Guard who can be in command. Of the 266 command opportunities, eight currently are filled by women and four are filled by African Americans, Kelly said.

He's been working on an initiative to recruit more diverse candidates for the job, and "through active mentoring and guidance and leadership, attempt to grow that rank to be more representative of our service," he said.

On the enlisted side, women make up about 14 percent of personnel and African Americans make up 6 percent.

This article is written by Julia Bergman from The Day, New London, Conn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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