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The Experience of Women in the UK’s Armed Forces: An Injustice to One is a Threat Made to All

A parliamentary report has highlighted the woefully inadequate condition of women in the UK armed forces. The problems are wider, and deeply rooted. Either way, they require urgent responses.

Sunday’s House of Commons Defence Committee (HCDC) report Protecting those who protect us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life highlights the lived experience of numerous female military personnel who, serving their country and putting their lives on the line, have been egregiously let down by the system and some of their colleagues. The report draws attention to instances of inappropriate and demeaning language, sexual assault and rape, and problems accessing suitable equipment.

The report notes that 64% of female veterans and 58% of currently serving women have reported experiencing bullying, harassment and discrimination, while in 2018, 21% of Army servicewomen had either experienced or witnessed workplace sexual harassment in the previous 12 months. In Montesquieu’s terms, Defence is a threat to all its people. Moreover, where service personnel are more willing to fight and die for their colleagues than vague concepts of patriotism, such issues also undermine the UK armed forces’ combat effectiveness.

A Track Record

The report is shocking, but not a surprise, and while the individual cases are alarming, the problems revealed are regrettably not new. Inappropriate behaviour has been reported with depressing regularity. In 2019, the Wigston Report on Inappropriate Behaviours commissioned by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) made 36 recommendations to address such issues, while in the first annual review of progress, Danuta Gray, an MoD Non-Executive Director and Chair of the Defence People Committee, added a further five recommendations.

Even before the Wigston Report, problems with the Service Complaints System were highlighted in numerous annual reports of the Service Complaints Ombudsman. The 2020 report confirmed the overrepresentation of female and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) personnel in the complaints system – approximately twice the level of white males – and highlighted how the system overall is not efficient, effective or fair. Deficiencies in career management and reports of bullying, harassment or discrimination are the largest single areas of complaint, at 41% and 27% respectively. Progress against previous Ombudsman reports has been so slow that it declined to add further recommendations in 2020 until those outstanding – some from as far back as 2016 – were addressed.

The failings in the Service Justice System are not new either, and are seen in other militaries. The US Army has replaced the two-star Head of its Criminal Investigations Division twice in as many years over concerns about how the US Army responds to sexual harassment and assaults. And a Pentagon Panel has recommended removing sexual assault cases from the chain of command to improve how these matters are handled. The HCDC notes an obligation on UK commanding officers to refer certain cases to civil authorities, but this falls short of a statutory bar, despite the 2018 and 2019 Service Justice System reviews recommending removing certain sexual offences from military jurisdiction. The MoD resisted this approach, but the HCDC rightly favours implementing the Service Justice System reviews’ recommendations on sexual offences committed in the UK. This would build much-needed trust in the process and improve conviction rates to civilian criminal levels which, despite their own problems, are better than in the military.

The HCDC is to be commended for its willingness to call out the shocking lived experience endured by many women in Defence. Other reports have done the same, but too often the focus is placed on the behaviour of individuals, with demands for better training or complaints processes. Both are important, but are in themselves inadequate.

Looking at the Roots

As Graham House, who runs the charity Justice4Troops, reminded people in a quote from South African theologian Desmond Tutu: '[t]here comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they're falling in’. A more fundamental review is needed to explore the extent to which the system itself is culpable. The report’s reference to an MoD view that gender balance among senior officers may take over 300 years to improve is almost as shocking as the harrowing stories of abuse. For armed forces professing a desire to act at the speed of relevance, this glacial pace cannot be acceptable.

The Chief of the Defence Staff acknowledges that the system is still ‘designed predominantly for men’ – and white men at that – yet the response looks inadequate. Even potentially positive initiatives such as lateral entry merely tinker at the edges, focusing on specialist career streams and allowing joining ‘at a slightly higher level’ (emphasis added). And a review of the appraisal system, while welcome, needs to ensure that the system gives appropriate weight to different interpretations of key behaviours such as leadership. If the yardstick is a masculine definition of leadership, in which assertiveness, decisiveness and task-orientation are prioritised, those traits often seen as feminine, such as empathy, humility and patience, are likely to be underappreciated and thus undervalued.

Defence is rightly working hard to improve diversity and inclusion, with diversity in all its forms likely to be increasingly important to delivering against the Command Paper. However, the HCDC report shows it must do much more to improve belonging, so that people have a sense of psychological safety that they will be accepted on their own terms. This is clearly lacking where underrepresented groups have to conform to the majority stereotype: while 90% of male senior officers (Royal Navy captains, colonels or group captains) have children, the corresponding figure is only 10% of female officers. Improving representation at promotion boards or changing the assessment criteria in appraisal reports is unlikely to succeed if boards still favour the dominant archetype. While this is an issue within society at large, it is particularly pronounced in the armed forces, where the standard career model assumes a long period of unbroken service during which the individual is available for work anywhere in the world, at any time. This is difficult to reconcile with family life, which demands the same unwavering commitment, and for which women still bear much of the burden.

The Task Ahead

As sophisticated paternalistic employers, the Services over-manage their people, demanding long, uninterrupted careers and conformity to a model of frequent postings over which individuals retain little agency. There are obvious benefits to paternalism in creating a sense of belonging and identity, but this can come at the expense of excluding many who do not conform. Rebalancing power relationships – which are overwhelmingly skewed towards the employer – by allowing individuals greater ability to influence or manage their own careers would create more diverse pathways, facilitate lateral entry in more ambitious ways and provide alternative yet meaningful careers for many more service personnel. It may also help address the persistent problem in Defence that the biggest factor in people leaving is the impact of Service life on family and personal life (62%).

As well as addressing career management, Defence needs to ensure its reward systems reinforce the desired behaviours. Currently, rewards are too narrowly linked to pay and promotion, and more needs to be done to find ways of rewarding people outside of such narrow constructs. Defence also needs to ensure that those it rewards live the values it espouses, rather than merely rewarding those who perform against the masculine archetype. This is not a challenge unique to Defence – many organisations struggle when confronted with those who deliver but do so in a way that contradicts core values. It is perhaps telling that the 2020 Regular Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey shows that the most powerful factors influencing people’s decision to stay in the armed forces are transactional (job security, medical and dental provision, and pension), while the main factors causing people to leave are relational (impact on private and family life, partner careers, and morale).

The HCDC report is a welcome – if alarming – contribution to the debate about improving treatment of service personnel, which is a legal, moral and operational imperative. While making many excellent points and being admirably wide-ranging, it highlights a shortfall in Defence thinking about the solutions. The long-overdue changes to the complaints and service justice systems, including greater independence of investigations and decision-making, are essential, but so too is a fundamental review of how the people system in Defence operates. Alongside changes to training and processes, there must be a willingness to remove people who break the rules. International humanitarian law protects servicepeople from the enemy, but some clearly need protection from their own side. Defence has not shown that it can provide this itself, and so external scrutiny is not only welcome but vital.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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