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Since 2017, allegations and revelations around sexual misconduct have dominated headlines, and the national conversation around gender began to shift. Many refer to this as the #MeToo Movement, which references the hashtag developed to convey the prevalence of sexual misconduct in the nation.

In the midst of this important cultural dialogue, Fors Marsh Group was tasked by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of People Analytics (OPA) to continue to evaluate current gender-related issues in the military, as well as assess misconduct reduction training programs developed by the DOD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO). The DOD has prioritized research on these topics long before #MeToo took root in the national conversation. One key action was the establishment of the SAPRO more than a decade ago in 2005. Starting in 2006, OPA’s Center for Health and Resilience Research have been conducting research on gender-related issues in the military and working with SAPRO on their goal to enable readiness through the reduction and ultimate elimination of sexual assault in the military. The DOD has taken several measures to decrease sexual assault and improve responses to survivors. Despite making substantial progress, it is important that the DOD continue to remain focused in its pursuit of an environment free of sexual assault for all.

The OPA gender relations body of research is comprised of a number of evaluation efforts including the use of focus groups to explore gender-related behaviors in the military—such as sexual assault and sexual harassment—and the military’s general climate around gender. For a recent effort in 2017, FMG researchers moderated over 80 focus group sessions across the globe with active duty military members in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force, as well as with Military Service Academy students and faculty. Active duty focus group participants varied with respect to rank, gender, and whether they were stationed domestically or abroad.

Throughout out the planning process for this work, FMG needed to take into account the changing dialogue around these sensitive topics, thinking through both the participants’ and research’s needs.

Two Requirements for Successful Sensitive Topics Research.

Having completed a global scale focus group effort spanning 18 months, we focus our preparation around two core requirements from which all other methods are built.

  1. When conducting qualitative research (e.g., focus groups) on these sensitive topics, it is essential to create a safe space to host the group, recognizing that survivors of sexual assault or sexual harassment may be in the room during data collection.

  2. FMG only activates researchers trained in conducting data collection on sensitive topics. During the focus group sessions, some participants may examine their own behavior or experience with a new lens and confront the idea of being a perpetrator or a victim for the first time. Additionally, it is important to work with onsite sexual assault response offices or local resources to understand and provide support options for participants.

When assessing overall climate and comprehension around sexual assault and sexual harassment, there are a number of topics to explore that add insight for stakeholders. Moderators led discussions related to leadership, who “sets the tone” around gender-related issues, overall views and understanding of behaviors that constitute sexual assault and sexual harassment, as well as ideas for prevention.

To gain a wider perspective on the cultural and environmental elements that might influence military members’ views, FMG held groups at different types of military installations, including bases close to densely populated areas and those in more remote hazard zones. Similarly, discussions with members of different ranks added insight to the different roles played depending on their responsibilities and tenure.

These conversations provide a deeper understanding of not only what the environment is like, but who may be able to change the culture and how. And that’s a factor on a lot of people’s minds as the #MeToo movement continues to evolve.

To read the results of these important efforts, please visit

About the author

Amanda Barry

Amanda Barry

Amanda Barry joined Fors Marsh Group in 2016, with more than eight years of research experience. As a researcher for the Military Personnel team, Amanda primarily conducts research for the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Office of People Analytics (OPA) focusing on gender relations.

Before joining Fors Marsh Group, Amanda conducted qualitative studies for Nielsen that focused on recruitment, attrition, and cooperation for their media research panels. She has a mixed methods background in data collection and analysis, including experience in survey methods and research, focus groups, in-depth interviews, observational studies, and eye tracking. Amanda is trained in focus group moderation by RIVA.

Amanda has presented her research at the American Association of Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) and has co-authored a publication on visual processing of satisfaction questions with symbolic language. Amanda also sits on the AAPOR Education Committee. She holds a M.S. in Survey Research and Methodology from the University of Nebraska—Lincoln and a B.A. in Political Science from Gettysburg College.

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