The military service with the smallest proportion of women in the ranks may also be disproportionately good at retaining them, newly obtained information shows.
According to reenlistment and retention data presented by the Marine Corps to the Pentagon’s Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services in December 2023, the service retains women at higher rates than men in almost every demographic and category ― and in some cases, by a wide margin.
While the Corps’ enlisted retention rates are relatively low compared to some of its service counterparts, a function of the service’s operational requirements and young, high-turnover workforce, women are dramatically more likely to reenlist.
In fiscal 2023, 28% of first-term male Marines opted for reenlistment, while 35% of women did ― a spread of seven percentage points. The year before, 24% of first-term men reenlisted, while 32% of women did. For second-term enlisted Marines, the gap was narrower, but still pronounced.
In 2023, 43% of second-term males reenlisted, compared with 47% of second-term females. Fiscal year 2022 saw a similar 41% to 46% second-term reenlistment gap.
Service data shows this trend has been observable since at least fiscal year 2019, the last year for which data was presented. And the margin shows no signs of narrowing: While in fiscal 2022 the Marines retained 30% of enlisted women and 27% of enlisted men, the gap widened in fiscal 2023, with a 33% female enlisted retention rate compared with 28% for enlisted males.
Overall, the female reenlistment rate for women was 33% for women, compared to 28% for men.
Among Marine officers, continuation rates are closer, but still show a gap. In fiscal 2023, 90% of female officers opted for continuation, compared to 88% of men. The year before, 92% of officer women and 90% of officer men stayed in. The gap holds true across the past five years.
These trends are especially remarkable because they have no parallel among the other services, which also presented retention data to the committee.
The Air Force, which has similarly high enlisted and officer retention rates, had exactly the same enlisted retention rate for men and women in 2023, 88.68%, and a negligible .14% difference in officer retention. At 90.71%, male officers had the higher rate.
In the Navy, which also has similar enlisted and officer retention rates, enlisted men stay in at higher rates than women. In 2023, 86.5% of enlisted men opted for continuation compared with 84.8% of women. And female officers barely edged out their male counterparts, with a continuation rate of 91% compared to 90.6% for men.
The Army, which did not provide officer data, showed an overall retention rate of 80.4% for women, slightly higher than the 77.1% rate for men.
Why does the Marine Corp retain women at such a markedly higher margin than women? It’s not exactly clear, although job distribution may play a role.
In the Marine Corps infantry, where women still constitute a small minority, the service typically opts not to retain all the Marines who want to reenlist. Last year, only 16% of first-term male riflemen were selected for continuation, according to Marine Corps data.
Marine officials themselves aren’t proposing any theories. A spokeswoman for Marine Corps Manpower and Reserve Affairs, Maj. Danielle Phillips, said internal polling from fiscal 2018–2022 doesn’t show any differences in reasons Marines give to leave the service or continue that would account for a five-percentage-point gender difference.
Top reasons for choosing to continue, she said, include retirement benefits; pay compensation; medical/dental care; and opportunity for promotion. The No. 5 most popular reason to continue did show a divergence between the genders: for men, it was deployment opportunities, while for women, it was the military tuition assistance benefit.
“There have been studies on retention ― not specific to higher female retention ― in the past,” Phillips said in a statement provided to Marine Corps Times. “One of our manpower modernization initiatives will allow us to catalogue and analyze historical manpower-related studies in the near future.”
Kyleanne Hunter, a senior political scientist at Rand who served in the Marine Corps as an AH-1W Super Cobra attack pilot, deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan, had additional insights about what may be driving the retention gender gap.
Past Air Force and Army studies have shown, she said, that troops of color, regardless of gender, tend to stay in uniform longer than their white counterparts, at least until a certain career seniority point. That’s relevant, she said, because women still make up a small minority of Marines, at roughly 10% of the total force. Because of that, she said, women can face a higher “barrier to entry” in selecting Marine Corps service.
“There’s very likely a self-selection bias that’s occurring,” Hunter said. “Are the women who join women who would be more likely to stay in, because they’ve already had to go through higher barriers to entry?”
Hunter applauded steps the Marine Corps and the other branches have taken to lower those perceived barriers to service, including expanded parental leave benefits, more inclusive health care and public messaging that features women. In the past several years, the proportion of female Marines has gradually increased, and top leaders have discussed their desire to see more women in the field of combat arms, which was largely closed to them until 2016.
The retention picture may also tie back to the Marines’ continued success in meeting recruiting targets, even as the other services have struggled or fallen short. The challenge of the Corps’ recruiting message, and the invitation to try to meet the service’s exacting standard, creates a self-selection effect ― a phenomenon that may be especially true for women electing to join the most male-dominated service.
“Tapping into a cultural narrative and cultural zeitgeist, it’s something that Marines have always done really well,” Hunter said. “People are joining the Marines not because they just want to join the military, but because they want to be a Marine.”
Hope Hodge Seck is an award-winning investigative and enterprise reporter covering the U.S. military and national defense. The former managing editor of Military.com, her work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Politico Magazine, USA Today and Popular Mechanics.