For 25 years Lory Manning lived in an alternate universe. She watched as most of her classmates in 1969 headed to further education, became teachers or homemakers. Manning did something a little different: participated in international negotiations and managed $3 million budgets. "At that time there weren't as many options for women," says Manning. "I wanted to travel, I wanted an adventure, and I wanted to do something where I could get paid just like the men."
Manning saw one place where she could do all of that: the military. She joined the Navy as an officer straight out of college and continued to serve up until the mid-'90s, making tours through Iceland and Panama. "I had opportunities there that I wouldn't have had anywhere else," says Manning, who now directs the Women in the Military Project at the Women's Research and Education Institute. "I liked the sense that based on my own merits [I was] given more responsibility."
Any list of the best places to work is sure to include cool favorites like Google. The U.S. military? The sacrifices and risks required of its members seem to make it an unlikely pick. But new research suggests that it may well belong on such a list, particularly for minorities and women. The members of those two demographics in the military consistently rate their jobs as more satisfying than white males do, according to new research in this month's American Sociological Review. Much like Manning's military experience, the study of over 30,000 active duty personnel suggests that the armed forces' social hierarchy—explicitly based on rank—overrides many of the racial or gender biases in civil society, which tend to act as barriers for women and minorities in career advancement.
"Whites are far and away the least satisfied [in the military]," says Jennifer Hickes Lundquist, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts and the study author. "Black females tend to be the most satisfied. It's a direct opposite and complete reversal of what we know about civilian job satisfaction."
In civilian society African-Americans generally express higher dissatisfaction with their jobs than their white counterparts and are less committed. But Lundquist's study of 30,000 active-duty personnel found that those norms are largely flipped in the military. She looked at five measurements of career satisfaction, including overall quality of life and opportunities for advancement, and found African-American women to be the most positive and satisfied with their jobs, followed by African-American men, Latinas, Latinos and white women. White men are the least satisfied with their military careers, rating their satisfaction and overall happiness with their jobs much lower.
"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 says. "There's a relative deprivation when you compare to satisfaction of peers outside of the military."
The same leveling effect among ethnic minorities also occurred across genders, although that was a bit more challenging to explain. A third of the women in the military say they have been sexually harassed, according to a recent Pentagon survey, and women in male-dominated specialties consistently rank their job satisfaction lower than those largely occupied by women. But female job satisfaction ratings seemed largely unaffected by these factors. Among each ethnicity that Lundquist studied, the women consistently had higher levels of job satisfaction than the males. Lundquist's thinking is that the mechanisms in place to ensure racial equality are trickling over to gender equality. "It's an environment where EEO [equal employment opportunity] works," she says. Manning, who spent 25 years in the military, has seen that leveling effect in action.
One sociologist unaffiliated with the survey offers a different explanation for high job satisfaction in the face of high levels of harassment: women might expect such treatment when they choose a military career and don't factor it into their self-reported job satisfaction. "A lot of the women can shrug it off. They figure it's part of being a woman in the military," says Mady Wechsler Segal, associate director of the Center for Research on Military Organizations at the University of Maryland.
Overall, though, there's a very clear contrast in job satisfaction between civilian and military society, and it seems to come down to the military's meritocractic structure. In the armed forces minorities and women see much of the racial bias and outright discrimination that still exist in civil society rendered irrelevant. Promotions and pay scales are all based on rank; equal employment regulations make it difficult to take much else into consideration. "You're not being promoted because you played golf on Sunday afternoon," says Lundquist. "This gets rid of the good ol' boys club culture. The military has certain characteristics that really level the playing field for blacks and whites."
That doesn't shock sociologists who study minorities in the military, like Segal. She describes the study's findings as "very interesting but not very surprising." It's also not surprising to those who have served in its ranks, like John Sibley Butler, who was drafted in 1969 to serve in Vietnam. He grew up in a predominantly black area of southern Louisiana at a particularly tense moment in race relations. But, as Butler describes it, the military was a completely different—and completely integrated—world. "What the military does boils down to racial contact," he says. "When I went to Vietnam, race relations were a mess all over the country. But when you go into the military, everything that happens is in a rank structure. No one is white or black. Everyone's green." Today, when he runs into white veterans, he says they all have a similar story to tell. "I can't tell you how many times they find out I was in the military, they'll say, 'I was in the military and I had this black roommate,' or 'I was in the military, my best friend was this black guy'," says Butler, who co-authored a book on the subject, "All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way." "Guys will say, 'I know how to cut your hair, I used to be in the military'." Even today research has found military bases and the neighborhoods surrounding them to be among the most racially mixed areas in the United States.
This new research not only speaks to race relations in the military; Lundquist thinks it speaks to the barriers that women and minorities continue to face in the civilian working world. "The military is not an easy place to work. Even aside from the risk of death, you don't have a whole lot of autonomy," says Lundquist. "If certain groups are showing higher satisfaction in that environment than in civil society, it really makes the case for how disadvantaged they are in the civilian world. They have to go to the military to find more equality."