It is unclear whether and when the COVID-19 pandemic might become endemic, but it is clear that working parents have been reevaluating their work-life balance over the past couple of years. For decades, sociologists and military scholars have been studying about work-family conflict, because the military and the family are “greedy institutions” that demand “commitments, loyalty, time, and energy” of their members at all times. Being aware of the tension between work and family, the United States military has developed family support policies that are more generous than federally required to ensure personnel readiness. However, family formation remains a major obstacle for operational readiness, particularly in terms of recruitment, retention, and integration of women.
The creation of the All-Volunteer Force in 1973 brought two major changes to the U.S. military and its personnel practices. First, recruitment methods had to be reoriented to present military service as a career option, meaning the military had to respond to market pressures and negotiate contractual relations with their recruits, and second, the profiles of recruits would no longer be limited to young unattached men. To adapt to the new reality, the U.S. military has gradually expanded its family support programs. For example, Army Regulation 600-8-10 permits up to 42 days of paid pregnancy convalescent leave and the Department of Defense has been operating the nation’s best and the largest employer-subsidized childcare system. For those who may be unfamiliar, Child Development Centers (CDCs) are the primary care providers for children ages six weeks to kindergarten, and they offer services on a sliding fee based on income. Alongside, the Child and Youth Services (CYS) have built community partnerships with various programs, providing on- and off-base care for children of all ages. Under CYS, the Family Child Care (FCC) program assists families with non-standard or variable work hours.
Given that the United States lacks paid leave and publicly funded childcare unlike other wealthy nations, these work-family support programs may seem quite generous. However, to assess the efficacy of these personnel management practices, one must understand the “greedy” nature of the military and the family, as well as the gendered logic of the military organization. In my forthcoming article, we examined the intersectional effects of gender and parenthood on job performance and retention using administrative data that include all new active-duty enlistees who joined the Army between 2002 and 2009. Our aim was to reveal the assumptions surrounding work-family conflict that perpetuate gender inequality by demonstrating how fathers separated prematurely to take care of their families at higher rates than childless men, while women who gave birth while in service were much less likely to separate early for work-family reasons than childless women. Of course, that does not mean that the U.S. military is doing an excellent job addressing work-family conflicts experienced by women because those who joined as mothers but had no additional children were much more likely to leave for work-family reasons than childless women. The results reflect the narrow conceptualization of work-family conflict in the military that is rooted in gender-role stereotypes, despite the high work and family demands faced by all soldiers who are parents, beyond the physical challenges associated with childbirth.
To be clear, paternal invisibility is not unique to the military per se, but the greediness of the military is unparalleled to other organizations. My hope is that our findings prompt employers, especially hypermasculine organizations like the military, to question the narrative that only motherhood is incompatible with military career and question the scope of its work-family policy framework. As my research shows, both mothers and fathers are important assets to the Army – men who fathered a child while in service were much less likely to be terminated for poor performance, and fathers were more likely to reach the competitive rank of Sergeant than childless men. Similarly, mothers were much less likely to be terminated relative to childless women, though mothers faced a reduced likelihood of becoming Sergeants due to the motherhood penalty.
To “enhance the readiness of the Department of Defense, and optimize talent management and personnel programs,” it is important that the U.S. military promotes fathers’ stronger involvement in childcare by reviewing the design of family-friendly policies so as to not perpetuate traditional gender roles. It is also important to plan accordingly for unavoidable turnover to ensure personnel readiness, especially during the time of war, because the military and the family are “greedy institutions.”
Eiko Strader is a sociologist and Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Sociology at The George Washington University.