The U.S. military has opened up a front in its attempt to recruit and retain more women in its ranks. In recent weeks the Navy announced it has tripled maternity leave, from six weeks to 18 weeks — a move likely to be replicated by the Army and Air Force, which are reviewing their policies.
It puts the armed forces ahead of the curve compared with corporate America, which has lagged far behind other wealthy nations when it comes to parental benefits. It is a development born out of a very real retention problem when it comes to women in uniform — not helped by some of the experiences of those who have gone through childbirth while serving.
Amanda Fernandez, 31, a mother of five who served in the Air Force from 2004 to 2012, said that during the Iraq War, there was “always a perception” that if you became pregnant, you were “doing it to get out of a deployment.”
“But I still went to Iraq,” she added. It is women like her that Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus presumably had in mind when announcing the more generous maternity terms, in part to entice “incredibly talented women who want to serve” and “want to be mothers and have the time to fulfill that important role the right way.”
Fernandez said she was “amazed and impressed” by the maternity leave policy change at the Navy. “It says they’re starting to recognize the plight of mothers in the military.”
While the military is developing — by U.S. standards, at least — generous maternity packages, the country as a whole has no law mandating paid time off to raise a child, putting America at odds with almost every other country in the world.
The Navy has said the 18-week figure was inspired by Google’s policy on parental benefits, but outside the tech sector — an industry, like the military, struggling to retain female talent — a small fraction of women have paid leave. Only 12 percent of U.S. private-sector workers have access to paid family leave through their employer, according to the Department of Labor.
The armed forces are taking other steps to encourage women to join or remain in the military. The Air Force announced in July that the fitness assessment deferment for new mothers would double from six months to a year after giving birth.
And in March, The Air Force Times reported that the Air Force would extend deployment deferment for new mothers from six months to one year.
Similar pro-family policy moves are being mulled at other services, aimed in part at correcting a gender imbalance in the forces.
Women make up roughly 14 percent of the Army, 18 percent of the Navy, 7.6 percent of the Marines, 19 percent of the Air Force and 15 percent of the Coast Guard, according to official figures.
In every branch of the military, the retention rate for women is lower than for men, according to a 2010 paper released by the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, which assessed continuation rates for female and minority officers in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force from 2000 to 2008.
The Department of Defense said women re-enlist at about half the rate of their male counterparts.
Ryan Kelty — an associate professor at Washington College in Maryland who specializes in military sociology — said that the focus on expanding women’s role in the armed forces isn’t new but that wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made keeping top talent a greater priority
“This trend has been going on for decades and has really accelerated in the last 12 years or so,” he said. “Prolonged conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan made the value of women in the 21st century armed forces patently clear to the military.”
But the fight for longer paid maternity leave in the armed forces hasn’t been smooth. Last year Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who is an Army veteran, introduced the Military Opportunities for Mothers Act, which would have extended maternity leave past 42 days but made women ineligible for pay on extra days taken. The bill died.
Though the Department of Defense still officially sets maternity leave at up to six weeks for all the armed forces, each branch is allowed some room for changes. Maternity leave is classified under convalescent leave, which is used when military personnel is ill or injured.
Nancy Campbell, a co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, said that the group welcomes the Navy’s increase in maternity leave but is concerned by the classification of maternity leave as convalescence.
“The convalescent period, this is something that’s available only to people who give birth, versus the family leave period that’s available to both parents, including, obviously, both parents in same-sex marriage situations, where only one may have given birth,” she said.
For married fathers on active duty, the Defense Department sets paid paternal leave at 10 days of nonchargeable leave and 21 days of nonchargeable leave for service members who adopt a child. Nonchargeable leave is not counted against other earned leave.
Navy policy says that mothers can go back to work before the full 18 weeks, and a mother does not have to take all the leave at once, as long as it’s used within one year of a child’s birth.
Though many welcome the increase in paid maternity leave, others say there can be a stigma for mothers who take six weeks — let alone the full 18 weeks — since there is a perceived tension between maternity leave and unit cohesion.
“When the Navy announced this, I looked on some of the message boards, and there were people saying, ‘Oh, great, pregnant women get everything. I only get this much, but they can take up to 18 weeks.’ So there was already some sort of backlash ... And I saw some women saying, ‘I’m concerned this is going to make them think that we can’t work,’” said Campbell.
Robyn Roche-Paull, a registered nurse and Navy veteran, said such comments are not uncommon. “‘My coworkers think I’m a slacker. They think I’m getting some kind of extra something special because I get time to go home,’” she said. “So that’s definitely alive and well. And that comes from both men and other women.”
A certified lactation consultant, she founded Breastfeeding in Combat Boots, an organization that provides information to mothers who are breast-feeding while serving in the military. Branches of the military have different policies on breast-feeding. Some specify that, when possible, a nursing mother should be provided a clean private room and time to pump. But Roche-Paull often gets emails from women have to make do with a supply closet or a restroom or aren't given timely breaks, and many women stop breast-feeding when their maternity leave ends.
Kelty said he believes that the success of the new paid maternity leave policy depends on the culture in the military and normalizing the 18-week leave so that women feel they can take the leave without sacrificing their career.
“It should feel perfectly comfortable to take advantage of that benefit, and that’s a huge leadership opportunity to make sure that that’s in place,” he said.