News | Dec. 29, 2021

Retaining Female Leaders: A Key Readiness Issue

By Benjamin Ramsey, Ann Bednash, and John Folks Joint Force Quarterly 104

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Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Ramsey, USAF, Ph.D., is a Branch Chief in the Operations Directorate at U.S. Cyber Command Headquarters. Lieutenant Commander Ann Bednash, USN, is an Intelligence Analyst for the Futures and Concepts Division, Joint Staff J7, in Suffolk, Virginia. John Folks is the J35 INDOPACIFIC Branch Chief of U.S. Transportation Command at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois.

A soldier carries a weapon while running in the rain.
Soldiers from 25th Infantry Division Artillery completed Jungle 5K and swim test train-up at Lightning Academy Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, May 14, 2021, as practice for upcoming Jungle Operations Training Course (U.S. Army/Jessica Scott)
A soldier carries a weapon while running in the rain.
Rain Runners
Soldiers from 25th Infantry Division Artillery completed Jungle 5K and swim test train-up at Lightning Academy Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, May 14, 2021, as practice for upcoming Jungle Operations Training Course (U.S. Army/Jessica Scott)
Photo By: Army Spc. Jessica Scott
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America’s joint force is at a difficult crossroads where the pressure of the “fight tonight” readiness mentality conflicts with long-term strategic competition with peers. The 2018 National Defense Strategy describes the changing character of war and the new challenges the joint force will face during “the reemergence of long-term strategic competition, rapid dispersion of technologies, and new concepts of warfare and competition that span the entire spectrum of conflict.”1 An enduring mission of the Department of Defense (DOD) is to provide combat-capable, technically proficient personnel, but there is a readiness issue undermining the joint force.

In 2020, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the high attrition of women from the joint force threatens the necessary diversity and operational capability that constitute a ready force.2 For example, women represent 20 percent of newly commissioned officers, but they separate from the military 28 percent faster than men and represent only 7 percent of U.S. generals and admirals.3 The lack of equal representation throughout the ranks is a key readiness issue because female Servicemembers are a critical core and highly trained component of DOD. Maintaining women in the ranks is a vital element of continuing readiness and operational effectiveness in a complex environment that focuses on the current battlespace while preparing for the fight over the horizon.

A ready joint force is one that actively fosters the inclusion of women and their commensurate representation in senior leadership roles. In responding to crises, studies find that female leaders and diverse groups with broad perspectives outperform homogenous groups.4 For women to lead crisis prevention and resolution from within the military, their careers must be long enough to qualify for senior rank. However, the higher annual attrition rate means a disproportionately small number of women will serve long enough to compete for senior ranks.

In a landmark effort to improve gender inclusivity, the United States passed the Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017, establishing as policy the “meaningful participation of women in conflict prevention, management, and resolution, and postconflict relief and recovery efforts.”5 The action followed United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2000, which urged all actors to increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives in peace and security efforts.6 These efforts have demonstrated some success, but the percentage of women in the U.S. military increased less than 2 percent between 2004 and 2020 and remains below 17 percent across all Services.7

For any Servicemember, the decision to hang up the uniform and transition to civilian life is momentous. The GAO report also found six broad factors that led women to separate from the military: sexual assault, deployments, work schedule uncertainty, organizational culture and inconsistent standards, family planning, and dependent care.8 DOD has taken concerted action in recent years to raise awareness of and to prevent sexual assault. Nevertheless, DOD reported no decline in the rate of sexual assaults during 2019, and a great deal of effort is still needed.9 Sexual assault is an important and challenging issue for DOD that goes beyond the scope of this article, as are perennial challenges resulting from deployments and dynamic work schedules. However, DOD can judiciously address aspects of the remaining three factors: organizational culture, family planning, and dependent care. Further examination of these three factors highlights their quantifiable nature and negative demonstrable effects on readiness and operational effectiveness.

Women leave military service earlier in their careers than do men largely because current policies do not yet adequately address specific barriers to continued service.10 Surveys of women separating from the military report workplace harassment and inconsistent fitness policies.11 DOD policy currently limits maternity leave to 3 months, while the World Health Organization and other national movements endorse exclusive breastfeeding and paid maternity leave for 6 months to achieve optimal health outcomes for both mother and child.12 Finally, access to childcare is increasingly inadequate in the wake of changing demographics and a nationwide shortage of providers. Improved access to childcare is the most fundamental and urgent requirement to retain women in the military because, if the household cannot afford or access childcare, it is most often the mother who ends up leaving the workforce.

Organizational Culture and Inconsistent Standards

In 2019, RAND published a study on why women separated from the Coast Guard, and the GAO issued a similar study for all the Armed Forces.13 Both studies concluded that shortcomings in organizational culture (for example, sexism, flawed fitness testing) proved a significant factor that led women to separate from the military.14 Women leaving the Coast Guard cited perceptions that male leaders were reluctant mentors and were unaware of female-specific policies or interpreted policies inconsistently.15 First-term attrition of women from the Army was especially large—more than twice that of the Marine Corps and five times that of the Navy—which implies that the “Army most differs from the other Services in the integration of females into its units once training has concluded.”16

One issue that has raised concerns and that negatively impacts the retention of women is inconsistent physical fitness and weight standards.17 Every military member is required to pass a Service-specific physical fitness test and meet height and weight standards. Physical fitness tests are designed to assess body composition, muscular strength and endurance, and cardiovascular fitness. There are notable inconsistencies, however, among the military Services with respect to height and weight standards for women and testing timelines following childbirth.18 Furthermore, the 2019 annual report from the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services concluded that current “body fat guidelines are based on outdated science and result in some female Servicemembers being unfairly evaluated.”19 Not only are the standards inconsistent, but the science the standards are based on also do not reflect or benefit from recent studies on enhanced readiness.

Soldiers who do not meet height and weight standards have their waists measured for further analysis by taping, which is the practice of assessing the Servicemember’s waist circumference with a measuring tape while trying to minimize physical contact between tester and testee. One flaw in this approach is that women of color have wider hips on average compared with white women, which leads to institutionalizing bias against some minorities.20 An investigation into why women leave the Coast Guard likewise identified widespread concerns regarding body fat composition measurements through taping.21 Military circumference equations consistently overestimate body fat, ending military careers without merit.22 The Air Force permanently discontinued waist taping in December 2020, but the other Services continue the practice.

The inherent goal of fitness testing is to ensure force readiness, but gender-neutral fitness testing has inadvertent negative impacts on military culture and organizational standards. The concept of a singular fitness testing standard for both men and women is attractive for its simplicity, but studies demonstrate the approach can be unfair.23 When fitness tests are conceived without regard to the physiological differences between men and women, the failure rate for healthy women is much higher than for healthy men.24 For example, after police forces in the United Kingdom implemented a gender-neutral timed obstacle course, the failure rates for men and women were 7 percent and 42 percent, respectively.25 Similarly, reported failure rates for the gender-neutral Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT), when introduced in 2019, were 30 percent for men and 84 percent for women. (In May 2021, ACFT failure rates remained skewed at 7 percent for men and 44 percent for women.26) Fitness testing scores currently impact promotion prospects within the Army, so the new ACFT performance scores adversely and disproportionately impact women. Emma Moore, a research associate for the Center for a New American Security, succinctly summarized the problem, noting that female Soldiers and those in noncombat arms fields will feel the change most acutely.27 Unfair policies are exacerbated by insufficient gender diversity among senior Army leadership, and changes under the ACFT, if not carefully considered, could be a key factor when women self-select out of service.28

The link between organizational culture and readiness, especially as culture is shaped through policies and standards, offers leaders and policymakers a direct means to improve readiness and retention of women in the force.

Family Planning

Family planning among military personnel quickly becomes a readiness issue due to deployment cycles and frequent moves and changes in duty station. Recent studies have focused on the varying degrees to which Active-duty members are affected by infertility, particularly women, due to stressful and dangerous situations experienced during military service.29 The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 authorized additional research into infertility and other health concerns as well as additional female personal protective equipment.30

Furthermore, childbirth is a life-changing event with long-term physical and emotional effects on the mother that require months for full recovery. Women who give birth score lower on their fitness tests up to 2½ years postpartum compared with those who do not give birth, with a demonstrable impact on promotion.31 Standards vary from 6 months to 1 year among the military Services on how long postpartum women must recover before taking fitness tests. Despite the need to fully recover after childbirth, female Servicemembers are expected to meet physical fitness standards as outlined in Service regulations. The pressure to resume rigorous exercise affects women of all ranks. For instance, Command Sergeant Major Jamila Smith, USA, shared that, after the birth of one of her children, she tried to resume training to meet workplace expectations and, in the process, damaged her cesarean incision badly enough to require medical attention.32 This anecdote illustrates how insufficient recovery times and the implicit pressures from the Services following birth can negatively impact Servicemember readiness even at senior levels.

Pregnancies that end in a miscarriage also have powerful physical and mental health effects that negatively impact readiness, if not adequately addressed. Miscarriages are often accompanied by long-term grieving that requires support from medical professionals, families, and the military chain of command. Despite this medical fact, most female Servicemembers have no minimum grace period before having to resume fitness testing following a miscarriage. In August 2020, the Air Force introduced a sliding scale of fitness grace periods following pregnancies of various lengths.33 While the policy change is an improvement over having no minimum recovery period, the fact that the policy quantifies miscarriages in callous categories including “less than 12 weeks” (which garners a 60-day grace period) and “at least 12, but less than 20 weeks” (which garners a 6-month grace period) demonstrates a lack of empathy for women who are suffering from a tragic loss. In February and March 2021, the Army and Marine Corps extended their postpartum fitness exemptions to 1 year, but they still do not account for miscarriages. Forcing women who are not mentally and physically prepared to return to Active duty invites deleterious effects to readiness and operations.34

Adequate maternity leave during the first year after birth leads to lower infant mortality rates, health benefits for the mother, an increase in female labor force participation, and an increase in breastfeeding rates.35 Companies that have increased the length of paid maternity leave beyond 12 weeks have seen dramatic increases in worker retention. Google, for instance, halved the attrition rate of new mothers by increasing its maternity leave from 12 to 18 weeks, and Accenture decreased attrition by 40 percent by increasing its maternity leave from 8 to 16 weeks.36 The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding until 6 months of age for a host of health benefits.37 It is not surprising, therefore, that at least 6 months of paid maternity leave is optimal for “the health and development of children, gender equality, and women’s careers.”38 The preponderance of military recruits come from families that have parents who served; therefore, policies that lead to improved family life and reduce infant mortality directly correlate to increased recruitment and readiness as a long-term policy issue.39

Current DOD guidelines fall short of the recommended 6 months of maternity leave: the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act, signed in 2019, caps maternity leave at 12 weeks. Marine Corps Commandant General David Berger stated in September 2020 that the 12 weeks of maternity leave Marines receive is insufficient and that he would consider extending the maternity leave policy to a full year.40 When women do return to duty earlier than 6 months after giving birth and continue to pump breastmilk as recommended, many face discrimination for taking breaks every 3 or 4 hours, despite being authorized and encouraged to do so by DOD policies.41 Female Servicemembers who become pregnant need adequate time to recover, physically and emotionally, so they can return to service both ready and encouraged to continue their career in the joint force.


A major barrier to the retention of women is insufficient access to affordable and accessible childcare. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of childcare centers and childcare availability across the United States was steadily declining due to an aging workforce and few incentives to enter the career field.42 Across the United States, 39 percent of women are solely responsible for staying home when their children are sick, and only 53 percent of women with elementary school–age children are employed full time.43 Directly associating childcare availability with joint force readiness, DOD policy regards childcare as critical to “mission readiness, retention, and morale of the total force during peacetime, overseas contingency operations . . . and other emergency situations.”44

Access to affordable and adequate childcare is a critical requirement for Servicemembers whose jobs are subject to changing shift work, long hours, overnight duties, and deployments. Insufficient childcare has been proved to affect military families “with single parents and dual military couples reporting more missed duty time after the birth of a new child or when moving to a new installation.”45 Over half of Servicemembers surveyed report that the unavailability of childcare had negatively impacted their pursuit of employment or education and was often linked to the cost of care.46

In response to the critical requirements for childcare, DOD “operates the largest employer-sponsored childcare program in the United States, serving approximately 200,000 children and employing over 23,000 childcare workers, at an annual cost of over $1 billion.”47 Even though the childcare system has considerable support from senior leadership, it has not been able to keep up with demand. In 2019, DOD officials testified that “more than 8,000 children of Sailors and 3,000 children of Airmen” were on DOD waiting lists for on-base childcare.48 As of 2020, DOD could accommodate only 78 percent of demand for childcare services.49 The shortfall is in large part due to rapid changes in Servicemember demographics and an increasing number of women joining the workforce.

As DOD recruited greater percentages of women, Active-duty female officers increased from 4 percent in 1973 to 16 percent in 2019.50 Today there are almost twice as many dual military married couples and single parents serving on Active duty compared with in 1985.51 While the number of childcare options has grown to include on-base Child Development Centers, 24-hour facilities, regulated in-home care, and subsidies for civilian care, DOD has struggled to meet the increased demand.

While shortcomings in childcare affect all military families with dependents, data suggests that women are more affected when childcare is unavailable. A 2020 Congressional Research Service report found that a “larger percentage of female Servicemembers and veterans have cited childcare issues as a major stressor associated with their time in service relative to their male counterparts.”52 Similarly, a 2019 Blue Star Family report found that “44% of female Servicemember respondents with children reported that a lack of childcare was a top stressor, compared to 20% of male Servicemember respondents with children.”53

The COVID-19 pandemic further ravaged an already overburdened system. Many childcare centers were forced to operate intermittently or close indefinitely. Childcare availability on Marine Corps facilities decreased by “about 50% . . . depending on the conditions in the installation community.”54 In the wake of the pandemic, childcare responsibilities have fallen predominantly on a female member of the household, with 44 percent of women being the only parent providing childcare compared with only 14 percent of men.55 DOD reports estimate that due to COVID-19, 1.2 million children under the age of 13 in military families will now require childcare, about 18,000 military children remain on waiting lists nationwide, and nearly 40 percent of Active-duty military members may be in desperate need of childcare.56 Childcare setbacks have negative impacts on careers, particularly for women, and COVID-19 has exacerbated the issue.

Continuing Challenges and Recommendations

Joint force readiness requires deliberate efforts to address personnel needs. The U.S. military must proactively address the distinct needs of women to improve retention and ensure the joint force is able to draw from all segments of the society it serves, in line with DOD diversity and inclusion strategic plans.57

Policymakers must realize that gender equality does not mean identical fitness standards for men and women, who have distinct physiological differences. Fitness tests with disparate pass rates for men and women unhelpfully distort military readiness metrics. Congress recognized the disparity and in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act ordered that the Army halt further implementation of the ACFT until its fairness could be determined by a non-DOD study. However, individual units are still testing their personnel based on current AFCT standards. As a 2018 RAND study stated, the intention must be that physical fitness test scores are “useful in predicting success in critical physical requirements of the job” and applied equitably.58 Instead of applying a waist measurement to equate Servicemember fitness, DOD should consider accurate caliper skinfold measurements, which could be completed in a similar amount of time.59

Scientific data clearly points to the importance of postpartum recovery time for readiness. While most Services have deferred postpartum physical fitness testing policies for up to a year after a birth event, inconsistencies remain regarding physical testing after pregnancy loss. Every woman in military service should be exempt from fitness testing for 6 months following pregnancy loss. In addition, every military Service should consider granting mothers at least 6 months of paid maternity leave. The implications for long-term readiness—readiness over generations—adds to the weight of the more immediate problem. Military recruits predominantly come from families with a history of service, and failure to reduce infant mortality among the families of its existing ranks could mean fewer recruits in the future.

Access to childcare must systematically expand to meet the ever-growing demand of military families; an increasing number of military families are single parent or dual military. Meeting demand will require deliberate increases in investment and development over the long term. DOD could more rapidly expand access to childcare through a combination of public-private partnerships, increased use of vouchers, and negotiated discounts with local providers. An equitable expansion of childcare access will be costly, but even if the budget steadily doubled to $2 billion per year, less than one-third of 1 percent of annual U.S. military spending, the implications for readiness suggest that the United States cannot afford to underinvest in childcare. If women are forced to choose between raising children and continuing a career in the U.S. military, the majority will continue to separate too soon to lead peace and security efforts in our increasingly volatile world. JFQ


1 Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2018), 1, available at <>.

2 Female Active-Duty Personnel: Guidance and Plans Needed for Recruitment and Retention Efforts, GAO-20-61 (Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office, 2020), 3, available at <>.

3 Ibid., 18.

4 Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, “Research: Women Are Better Leaders During a Crisis,” Harvard Business Review, December 30, 2020, available at <>.

5 Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017, Pub. L. No. 115-68, 131 Stat. 1202 (2017), available at <>.

6 United Nations Security Council, “Resolution 1325 (2000),” S/Res/1325 (2000), October 31, 2000, available at <>.

7 Female Active-Duty Personnel, 13.

8 Ibid., 28–29.

9 Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military: Fiscal Year 2019 (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2020), 3, available at <>.

10 Female Active-Duty Personnel, 28–29.

11 Kimberly Curry Hall et al., Why Do Women Leave the Coast Guard, and What Can Be Done to Encourage Them to Stay? RB-10058-DHS (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2019), 4, available at <>.

12 Lucy Strang and Miriam Broeks, Maternity Leave Policies: Trade-Offs Between Labour Market Demands and Health Benefits for Children, RR-1734-EC (Cambridge, UK: RAND, 2016), 5, available at <>.

13 Hall et al., Why Do Women Leave the Coast Guard, and What Can Be Done to Encourage Them to Stay? 1–12.

14 Ibid., 4–7; Female Active-Duty Personnel, 28–29.

15 Hall et al., Why Do Women Leave the Coast Guard, and What Can Be Done to Encourage Them to Stay? 10.

16 James V. Marrone, Predicting 36-Month Attrition in the U.S. Military: A Comparison Across Service Branches, RR-4258-OSD (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2020), 31, available at <>.

17 Hall et al., Why Do Women Leave the Coast Guard, and What Can Be Done to Encourage Them to Stay? 4.

18 Sharon Sisbarro et al., “The DOD’s Body Composition Standards Are Harming Female Service Members,”, December 31, 2020, available at <>.

19 Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services 2019 Annual Report (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2019), 32, available at <>.

20 Mahbubur Rahman et al., “Racial Differences in Body Fat Distribution Among Reproductive-Aged Women,” Metabolism: Clinical and Experimental 58, no. 9 (September 2009), 1329–1337, available at <>.

21 Hall et al., Why Do Women Leave the Coast Guard, and What Can Be Done to Encourage Them to Stay? 4.

22 “Experts: Tape Test Has Huge Margin of Error,” Military Times, May 21, 2013, available at <>.

23 Craig A. Jackson and David Wilson, “The Gender-Neutral Timed Obstacle Course: A Valid Test of Police Fitness?” Occupational Medicine 63, no. 7 (October 2013), 479–484, available at <>.

24 Ibid., 479.

25 Ibid.

26 Emma Moore, “The ACFT and the Problems with the Military’s Cult of Physical Fitness,”, December 16, 2019, available at <>; Steve Beynon, “Nearly Half of Female Soldiers Still Failing New Army Fitness Test, While Males Pass Easily,”, May 10, 2021, available at <>.

27 Moore, “Cult of Physical Fitness.”

28 Ibid.

29 Bryce H.P. Mendez, “Infertility in the Military,” Congressional Research Service, April 15, 2020, available at <>.

30 National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, S.1790, 116th Cong., 1st sess. (December 20, 2019), available at <>.

31 Amy E. Rogers et al., “Postpartum Fitness and Body Mass Index Changes in Active-Duty Navy Women,” Military Medicine 185, no. 1–2 (January–February 2020), e227–e234, available at <>.

32 Matthew Cox, “Army Still Deciding How Soon Soldiers Will Have to Take ACFT After Giving Birth,”, June 21, 2020, available at <>.

33 Air Force Instruction 48-133, Aerospace Medicine Duty Limiting Conditions (Washington, DC: Headquarters Department of the Air Force, 2020), 20, available at <>.

34 “Army Extends Timeline for Postpartum Soldiers to Meet Body Fat Standards,” Army, March 19, 2021, available at <>; MARADMINS 066/21, Expanded Postpartum Exemption Period for Fitness and Body Composition Standards (Washington, DC: Department of the Marine Corps, 2021), available at <>.

35 Christopher J. Ruhm, The Economic Consequences of Parental Leave Mandates: Lessons from Europe, Working Paper 5688 (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1996), 1–48, available at <>.

36 David Collings, Yseult Freeney, and Lisa van der Werff, “How Companies Can Ensure Maternity Leave Doesn’t Hurt Women’s Careers,” Harvard Business Review, September 11, 2018, available at <>.

37 Strang and Broeks, Maternity Leave Policies.

38 Stephen Miller, “How Much Parental Leave Is Too Much,” Society for Human Resource Management, February 21, 2019, available at <>.

39 Mark Thompson, “Here’s Why the U.S. Military Is a Family Business,” Fortune, March 13, 2016, available at <>.

40 Gina Harkins, “Top Marine Says He Won’t Stop Fighting for 1-Year Maternity Leave,”, September 11, 2020, available at <>.

41 Oriana Pawlyk, “Military Leaders Are Confronting a New Form of Discrimination: Pregnancy Bias,”, August, 2, 2020, available at <>.

42 Picking up the Pieces: Building a Better Child Care System Post COVID-19 (Arlington, VA: Child Care Aware of America, 2020), 1–34, available at <>.

43 The U.S. and the High Price of Child Care: An Examination of a Broken System (Arlington, VA: Child Care Aware of America, 2019), available at <>.

44 Kristy N. Kamarck, Military Child Development Program: Background and Issues, R45288 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2020), 2, available at <>.

45 Ibid., 3.

46 Ibid., 8.

47 Ibid., ii.

48 Leo Shane III, “The Military’s Lingering Readiness Problem: Lack of Daycare,” Military Times, February 8, 2019, available at <>.

49 Ibid.

50 Eileen Patten and Kim Parker, “Women in the U.S. Military: Growing Share, Distinctive Profile,” Pew Research Center, December 22, 2011, available at <>.

51 Kamarck, Military Child Development Program, 2.

52 Ibid.

53 Ibid., 15.

54 Karen Jowers, “Military Child Care Starts Limited Reopenings. Which Children Will Get In?” Military Times, June 24, 2020, available at <>.

55 Gemma Zamarro, Francisco Perez-Arce, and Maria Jose Prados, Gender Differences in the Impact of COVID-19 (Los Angeles: Center for Economic and Social Research, June 8, 2020), available at <>.

56 Kevin Lilley, “DOD Must Address ‘Desperate Need’ for Child Care Support,” Military Officers Association of America, August 11, 2020, available at <>.

57 Department of Defense Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan 2012–2017 (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2012), available at <>.

58 Chaitra M. Hardison, Susan D. Hosek, and Anna Rosefsky Saavedra, Establishing Gender-Neutral Physical Standards for Ground Combat Occupations, vol. 2, A Review of the Military Services’ Methods, RR-1340/2-OSD (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2018), xiv, available at <>.

59 “Experts: Tape Test Has Huge Margin of Error.”