Race, Gender, and the US Military: Understanding the Brass Ceiling


  • Tia Gaumont, Political Science


  • Dr. Jen Spindel, Political Science


The United States military is one of the most diverse institutions in the nation. However, its top ranks remain overwhelmingly white and male. This matters, because research shows that the public is highly deferential to the U.S. military, and is willing to delegate political decisions to military leaders. If the image of “military leader” that the public conjures is a white man, then diversity among enlisted ranks and lower-ranking officers will not have much effect on public views of and trust in diverse personnel. By studying the experiences of former servicemembers, this project will provide a better understanding of the barriers --both formal and informal --that have kept top military ranks white and male.

There are two primary goals for this project. The first is to write a scholarly journal article using the survey results. This scholarly piece will contribute to ongoing scholarly debates about civil-military relations and the effects of diversity and inclusion on both the military and public views of the military. Existing research shows that military service is one way for underrepresented groups to make claims to first-class citizenship status. For example, Black servicemembers were able to contrast their record of service to the nation with their poor treatment at home. Although gay and lesbian servicemembers could not serve openly until the 2010 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” many were able to use their service record to push back against narratives that they were “other”. Similarly, President Obama’s decision to allow transgender individuals to openly serve undercut many anti-trans arguments in broader society. Yet despite these policies of inclusion, the top ranks --and thus the individuals the general public associates with “military leader” --are staffed by white men. Racialized minorities and women still face a “brass ceiling” when it comes to promotion. Understanding the barriers that servicemembers themselves experienced or perceived is the first step toward understanding how to achieve diversity and equity throughout this entire powerful institution.

The second goal of the project is to contribute to policy debates by writing a more public-facing piece. In translating our work for policy and military leaders, we will show that looking at overall diversity and inclusion is not enough; we must be attentive to power dynamics and where power lies within institutions.

“By studying the views of former military members, we aim to get a more representative sample. Our respondents will have served in different eras, different branches, and at different ranks, which will increase the representativeness and thus generalizability of our survey.”

About Professor Spindel & Tia Gaumont

One of Prof. Spindel’s research agendas concerns civil-military relations, and uses survey methodologies. She has published pieces from this agenda in Armed Forces & Society, The Journal of Global Security Studies, and Environmental Communication. Her expertise in both the substance and the methodology will help see this project to completion. She has a particular interest in understanding how individuals’ perceptions of race and gender affect who they see as “authoritative” or “trustworthy”. Her prior work looked at the myths that were used to rationalize excluding transgender individuals from serving in the military, as well as the effects of expanding the draft to include women. Additionally, she has done numerous public-facing outreaching, including publishing pieces in the Monkey Cage, the Duck of Minerva, the Conversation, and more.

Tia Gaumont is an outstanding senior student at UNH. She has been working as a research assistant for Prof. Spindel during the Fall 2021 semester, where she demonstrated her research and analytical excellence, as well as an ability to balance classes and independent research. Tia is interested in attending graduate school, and working on this project will help her with those applications and with establishing an expertise and ability to engage with both scholars and policymakers.