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What do military service members think about diversity — especially gender diversity — in their ranks?

To find out, we surveyed midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Following a Supreme Court decision in January, the Pentagon confirmed April 15 that it would effectively ban transgender people from attending the U.S. Naval Academy and other service academies starting in the fall of 2020.

We wanted to examine what Naval Academy midshipmen think about diversity in general and about gender nonconformity in particular.

Even though there has been plenty of debate within the U.S. military about transgender service, it is notoriously difficult to discern attitudes on contentious issues through direct survey questions, so we carried out survey experiments at the Naval Academy to investigate these questions. We found that the midshipmen agree there is value in having a military that is racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse. However, they weren’t as sure about gender diversity.

Midshipmen are indifferent toward female applicants for admission and slightly positive toward female faculty candidates. But attitudes toward gender-non-binary applicants are strongly negative.

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How we did our research

As we explain in our forthcoming article in Armed Forces & Society, we used randomized conjoint analysis. Here’s how it works: We gave participants pairs of hypothetical applicants for admission as midshipmen or Naval Academy faculty. Each applicant profile was made up of a bundle of personal qualities, accomplishments and demographics.

On race and ethnicity, the applicants were described as either black, white, Asian, Native American or Hispanic. On gender, most were described either as men or women, but we also included applicants whose gender was “non-binary.”

Respondents’ choices from among thousands of paired comparisons allowed us to estimate their relative preferences on characteristics related to diversity and those that are not. This method allows researchers to assess attitudes on sensitive topics without alerting participants what our focus is.

We administered two experiments at the Naval Academy in the winter of 2018, one measuring attitudes on student admissions and the other on faculty recruitment — 1,154 midshipmen, or 26 percent of all those enrolled, participated. We conducted similar experiments at six other universities, allowing us to compare attitudes at the Naval Academy with those at civilian institutions.

Midshipmen’s attitudes are pretty similar to those of college students with one big exception.

Midshipmen strongly favor applicants from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds and moderately favor members of traditionally underrepresented racial or ethnic groups. However, midshipmen express a powerful preference against gender-non-binary applicants and faculty candidates — which we didn’t find at other colleges.

Midshipmen favor racial and economic diversity.

The strongest factors driving selection have to do with scholarly achievement — standardized test scores and high school grades for admissions, and teaching and research records for faculty — but midshipmen prefer members of traditionally underrepresented racial or ethnic groups in both admissions and faculty recruitment. For admission to the Naval Academy, they favor first-generation applicants and applicants from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.

Here’s how that breaks down. When asked which candidates they would admit, our respondents were five percentage points more likely to admit a black applicant and three percentage points more likely to select a Native American than one who is white. They felt similarly about hiring faculty, with moderate preferences of three to four percentage points for black, Hispanic and Native American candidates over whites.

Meanwhile, midshipmen were 12 percentage points less likely to select an applicant whose family’s income is in the nation’s top income percentile than someone whose family income was at the median. And they were five percentage points more likely to select a first-generation applicant than one whose parents attended college.

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Those preferences were pretty consistent across demographic subgroups. White and nonwhite midshipmen and midshipmen from families with higher or lower incomes felt roughly the same. Most important, no cohort disfavored applicants from traditionally underrepresented racial or ethnic groups or disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.

Midshipmen strongly disfavor gender-non-binary applicants and faculty candidates.

Attitudes toward gender at the Naval Academy are much different than at other schools. Most college students slightly favor female and non-binary applicants over men. At the academy, a female applicant is just as likely as a man to be selected, all things being equal, and midshipmen weakly prefer women to men for faculty slots. But a gender-non-binary applicant was less likely to be selected than a male applicant — by 20 percentage points for admission and 13 percentage points for a faculty slot.

That varied by demographic group. Whites more strongly disfavored female and gender-non-binary applicants than nonwhites did. And men were more likely to disfavor female and gender-non-binary applicants than women.

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Midshipmen favor socioeconomic and racial or ethnic diversity in admissions and faculty hires. So why are their attitudes toward gender-non-binary individuals so different?

Mixed signals from the top levels of leadership could play a role. Until recently, federal guidelines banned intersex and gender-nonconforming individuals in the military because of supposed medical risks. In June 2016, the Obama administration prohibited the armed forces from involuntarily separating people who came out as transgender. President Trump reversed course on July 26, 2017, through multiple tweets in which he announced he would ban transgender people from the military.

Historically, when signals from the top are clear, attitudes in the officer ranks follow. Naval Academy attitudes toward women were initially skeptical but shifted quickly in favor after women first matriculated in the 1970s. Attitudes toward gay and lesbian service members shifted in favor after the “don’t ask, don’t tell” debates of the 1990s subsided.

The debate over transgender people in the military is relatively new and unfamiliar, and institutional disagreements may foster reservations among midshipmen. If the courts and top civilian and military leaders were to line up, attitudes among officers in training would probably follow. However, recent events suggest that if signals from the top do line up, they most certainly will be against transgender acceptance.

John M. Carey is the Wentworth Professor in the Social Sciences at Dartmouth College.

Yusaku Horiuchi is professor of government and the Mitsui Professor of Japanese Studies at Dartmouth College.

John Polga-Hecimovich is assistant professor of political science at the United States Naval Academy.

The views expressed here are solely those of the authors and do not represent the views of or endorsement by the United States Naval Academy, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.