The most satisfied military employees? Black women. Least satisfied? White men.

January 23, 2013

The Pentagon's decision to lift the ban on women in combat roles might be more than a boost to gender equality. It might also prove a boon, surprisingly, to women's job satisfaction.


PATRICK BAZ/AFP/GETTY IMAGES - U.S. Army soldiers listen to a briefing as they prepare to leave on a mission in Ramadi, Iraq, on Oct. 26, 2004. Senior defense officials say Pentagon chief Leon Panetta is removing the military’s ban on women serving in combat.

With all the risk and sacrifice, the military does not seem like an institution that would top career satisfaction surveys. But a study of 30,000 active-duty personnel, published in the American Sociological Review, showed that women consistently reported higher job satisfaction in the military than male counterparts of the same ethnicity. This trend held true for African Americans, Hispanics and Whites, and is the exact opposite of what sociologists see in the private sector.

University of Massachusetts' Jennifer Hickes Lundquist used five measurements of career satisfaction, metrics like overall quality of life, opportunities for advancement and whether they believe they will soon get promoted. Using that data, she found that African-American women were the most satisfied with their jobs, followed by African-American men. Latinas came next, followed by Latinos, and then white women.

White men came in as the least satisfied with their careers, with the lowest rankings by these metrics.

Lundquist thinks this has a lot to do with the structure of the military, where the social hierarchy rests on rank rather than class or gender. "For women," Lundquist writes, "pay and job benefits are more equal in the military than in the civilian labor."

Separate research has found that male and female promotion rates in the military tend to be similar, erasing a gender gap that exists in the private sector. Women are still, however, "grossly underrepresented" among those promoted to higher military ranks such as captain or lieutenant colonel.

A more fair playing field, at least at lower military ranks, would be a boost for minorities and women. It would also be a potential drawback for white males.

"It's not that the military environment treats white males less fairly; it's simply that, compared to their peers in civilian society, white males lose many of the advantages that they had," Lundquist said when we spoke about her research. "There's a relative deprivation when you compare to satisfaction of peers outside of the military."

Lundquist does not dismiss the impact that other factors could have to mitigate women's job satisfaction in the military, especially sexual harassment. She acknowledges that, while negative factors exist, the more positive influence of a level playing field ultimately results in better job satisfaction for military women.

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Dylan Matthews | January 23, 2013