Is there a Military Spouse Hiring Penalty?

Dernberger Headshot Aug 2016Brittany N. Dernberger (@bdernberger) is a Doctoral Student in Sociology at University of Maryland, College Park, where she studies social inequality and mobility. Her research focuses on gender and sexuality, the changing nature of work, and how social institutions influence life outcomes.

Military spouses are what you would call “tied migrants.” Tied migrants are people who move to support the employment prospects of their partner or spouse, such as moving for a new job, promotion, or opportunity. Military spouses experience tied migration repeatedly, typically about once every two to three years, which is twice as often as civilian families. By virtue of being married to someone in the military, military spouses face a number of employment challenges. Unemployment rates for military spouses are triple those of their civilian peers. They face an earnings penalty of approximately 38% compared to their civilian counterparts and experience high rates of underemployment based on their educational and employment backgrounds. This directly affects 1.8 million active duty military spouses and more than 15 million veteran spouses in the U.S. (Bradbard et al. 2016).

With each move, military spouses must start their job search anew. Military spouses often feel prospective employers will discriminate against them because of their military spouse status and their interrupted work history as a tied migrant. This led me to question how each of these factors are weighed within the hiring process: do military spouses have worse employment outcomes because of being a tied migrant, or is there a separate effect because of their status as a military spouse? In other words, is it the history of moving or the status of being a military spouse that leads to divergent hiring outcomes?

To answer these questions, I used a factorial vignette survey. Factorial vignette studies allow researchers to set experimental conditions that examine respondents’ reactions to different hypothetical scenarios (vignettes) controlling for the variables in each scenario. Respondents are randomly assigned slightly different versions of the vignettes. This study examines how the public perceives military spouses as job applicants and potential workers using a factorial vignette survey. Each vignette was based around a woman applying for a job as a Human Resources Assistant. I used a woman, as opposed to a man, because the vast majority (93%) of military spouses are women. The vignettes varied characteristics about the woman, for example, whether she was married to someone in the military, her sexual orientation, how frequently she had moved in the past, her educational background, most recent job, and whether she had children. The vignettes did not state the military member’s rank, branch, or the woman’s race. Over 650 respondents each evaluated a randomized “deck” of 10 short vignettes. After reading each vignette, respondents answered several questions evaluating the applicant on (a) hiring-based assessments (perceptions of warmth, competence, reliability, sociability, and longevity—likelihood of being at the job long term), and (b) starting salary (respondents could select from four predetermined ranges of salary). I then analyzed the data to see which variables were most significant, accounting for respondent demographics and the characteristics of each potential job applicant posed in the vignette.

Two important findings emerged from this study:

(1) There is a tied migrant penalty: for every hiring-based assessment, those who had a history of moving frequently were rated lower than those with geographic stability.

Table 1 presents difference of means tests comparing those with a history of frequent moving, and secondly, comparing military or civilian spouses. For every assessment, individuals with a history of geographic stability were rated higher than those who had a history of moving frequently; these results are statistically significant (p < .01). Secondly, military spouses were rated at statistically significant higher levels than civilian spouses for warmth and competence, but were rated statistically lower for longevity. The average score is 4.11 for civilian spouses and 3.61 for military spouses (p < .01). This suggests military spouses receive a premium in terms of overall assessment, but are penalized when decision makers are considering their potential for longevity with a company.


(2) Military spouses experience a premium, but also a penalty in the hiring process: Military spouses receive a premium for most assessments, being evaluated as more warm, competent, reliable, and social. However, regardless of whether military spouses have actually moved frequently in the past or not, they are rated lower than comparable civilian spouses on anticipated longevity with a company.

Figure 1 highlights the predicted hiring outcome of military and civilian spouses, comparing whether the applicant has a history of frequent moving or stability. The results show a nuanced picture: among women who have been geographically stable, military spouses are rated higher than civilian spouses (4.29 compared to 4.19). However, for applicants with a history of moving frequently, recursive tied migrants, the inverse is true: civilian spouses are rated higher than military spouses (4.11 compared to 4.05). These results suggest applicants with a stable geographic history are generally evaluated higher than those who have moved frequently, suggesting there is a penalty for tied migration. Military spouses with a stable geographic history are evaluated higher than civilians, but that premium switches to a penalty for military spouses with a history of moving frequently, in which case they are evaluated more harshly than civilians who have moved frequently.


What does this mean for military spouses?

Hiring decision makers are critical of job candidates with a history of frequent moving, and military spouses may be more likely to have an interrupted work history due to being married to someone in the military. These findings lead to a critical inquiry: perhaps the employment penalty military spouses experience is not due to being a military spouse per se, but due to the signal of a military spouse indicating future frequent moving. Forthcoming iterations of this project – which I’m working on with Dr. Meredith Kleykamp – will explore how employers perceive the “future moving” signal military spouses may inadvertently send as job candidates. While not necessarily contradicting previous studies establishing a military spouse employment penalty (see Bradbard et al. 2016; Hisnanick and Little 2015), these results suggest the need for a deeper dive into the underlying mechanisms resulting in military spouses having worse employment outcomes.

Read the full paper, including detailed analyses and findings, for free on SocArXiv.

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