Women in the UK Armed Forces: Is Defence’s Response Good Enough?

Main Image Credit A female Air Trooper, part of HQ Sqn, 6 AAC marshalling a Wildcat Helicopter. Courtesy of Defence Imagery / OGL v3.0

The Ministry of Defence’s response to a report on women in the armed forces contains some welcome actions, but there are questions over how fast it is willing to move.

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Defence’s overdue response to the House of Commons Defence Committee (HCDC) Report of July 2021 was published. There is much to welcome in the individual actions and in their breadth. There are, however, legitimate concerns about a seeming lack of urgency in how Defence is responding to an issue as important as this, and whether the myriad actions will amount to a solution.

The original report was damning. It described a lived experience for too many women in Defence that included sexual harassment and abuse by colleagues, and organisational problems that revealed their needs – such as sanitary products, uniform and equipment – were not catered for appropriately by Defence. Disturbing though the HCDC Report was, it was not isolated criticism; numerous other studies – Service Complaints Ombudsman annual reports, the 2019 Report into Inappropriate Behaviour (Wigston Report) and the 2018–19 Reviews into the Service Justice System (Lyons-Murphy Reports) – describe similar problems. The HCDC’s recommendations reflected those in the earlier reviews and were, in many respects, already being considered or actioned by the Ministry of Defence. Unsurprisingly, therefore, much of the 65-page response to the HCDC describes an extensive range of work already underway, with some elements being accelerated and some new initiatives. Whether they are ‘the’, or even ‘an’ answer remains to be seen.

The delayed response allowed the department to engage extensively with the Service Gender Networks and was informed by them, which is a positive sign. However, the paper is peppered with references to culture change taking a long time (a fair observation), suggestions that work will now be initiated or scoped (rather than having started), a commitment to six-month sprints (which are more like marathons than agile sprints), and pride in getting close to implementing recommendations from reports that were accepted two years earlier. When it takes almost two years to publish a new policy on behaviours and informal complaints (JSP763), or a similar period to create a new Defence Serious Crimes Unit (DCSU), critics might question why it has taken so long when government can merge entire departments of state more quickly. Moreover, with the armed forces reporting in 2021 that 11% of Service women were sexually harassed in the preceding 12 months, over six months, more than 5% of the female workforce will become victims before the sprint ends.

Timing is particularly critical where change requires legislation. The Armed Forces Bill goes before Parliament every five years, setting a timetable for issues requiring primary legislation. With the latest Bill already before Parliament, without rapid action the next iteration will be 2026. The HCDC and others must ensure that investigations into subjects potentially requiring legislation take place in time to inform the drafting of the next Bill, which realistically means two years before. While the recommendation to remove rape and sexual assault with penetration from Service jurisdiction was not accepted, the opportunity to press for this again now with a House of Lords amendment should not be lost. There is opposition to Defence’s position, but given the government’s majority it may be 2026 before this is reversed. Notwithstanding the department’s position that ‘the existing principle of concurrency between the Service and civilian jurisdictions should be maintained’, there is precedent. Until they were repealed by the Armed Forces Act 2006, all three single Service discipline acts (Naval Discipline Act 1957, s.48(2); Army Act 1955, s.70(4); and Air Force Act 1955, s70(4)) imposed a statutory bar on the Services dealing with rape when it was committed in the UK. Clearly, it is not incompatible with military discipline or long-standing principle for serious criminal offences to be removed from Service jurisdiction. And while it is not a silver bullet solution, the poor performance of the Service Justice System in matters of sexual violence makes it absolutely appropriate for Defence to return to the pre-2006 position, both as a means of delivering justice and as a way of building confidence. That said, the creation of the DCSU is a very welcome and important step in increasing the independence of investigations and offering support to victims.

Restoring confidence in the treatment of women within Defence is vital to achieving the ambitious target of 30% of inflow being women by 2030

The UK is a strong advocate of attempts to prevent sexual violence in conflict, and ensuring its personnel behave appropriately in normal circumstances makes it more likely they will do so in stressful conflict situations. This is not only towards colleagues but also the civilian populations with whom they come into contact, such as the case of Agnes Wanjiru where a soldier allegedly confessed to the murder but the matter was not investigated. Restoring confidence in the treatment of women within Defence is also vital to achieving the ambitious target of 30% of inflow being women by 2030. If levels of sexual abuse and harassment are not cut quickly, it will be impossible to create the sense of safety essential to meeting the target. Moreover, retention will not improve and, like a bucket with a hole, merely adding water faster does not fill it faster than patching the hole.

As predicted, the response focuses on individuals and individual behaviour. It is strongest in this regard, with an impressive list of actions taken or to be taken, many of which flow from the consultations held by the secretary of state with the Service Gender Networks prior to the response. It is also encouraging to see a focus on data collection, reporting and the intention to use data to hold people to account. Of course, this must also be transparent if trust is to be built.

While it is true that culture takes time to change, it is changed by – and changes – behaviour, and behaviour is much more malleable. Drink-driving is a case in point, as is homosexuality. Until the 1990s, homosexuality in the armed forces was grounds for imprisonment and dismissal. Changing the policy was the prelude to changing the culture, not its consequence, and the culture changed quickly. However, uniformed organisations of many kinds can struggle with culture change, as the aftermath of the Sarah Everard case for the police and abuse of female military personnel in Australia and the US show. Whether the actions described cumulatively lead to the behavioural and cultural change needed is still moot.

Linking behavioural change to rewards (and punishments) is crucial, and the appraisal system is a powerful agent in this. Changing the senior officer reporting system is an important declaratory statement, but two-star (or even one-star) officers are too removed from the perpetrators of sexual harassment for this to make a substantial difference quickly. It is the non-commissioned, commanding and more junior officers who will have the greatest impact on how people behave, acting as role models and calling out instances of inappropriate behaviour. All Service people need to be held to account and judged against the climate that they create through their own actions and inaction. Ensuring command failures have career impact by making them appear in employment records is obviously important, and overdue.

Throughout, the ministry has to balance the importance of the chain of command – which is crucial in combat – with the need for independence where appropriate. This is a difficult task and for the most part, the response walks the tightrope pretty well. It is, however, less clear in addressing the imbalance in power relationships and affording Service personnel greater agency over their own careers. The mention made of increasing opportunities for people to opt out of some assignments based on childcare is very welcome, but it still appears like an agreement not to penalise non-conformance with the dominant model, which remains masculine. The freedom to be authentic that is so important to generating the sense of belonging the response talks about requires more; people should be rewarded for exercising their own agency, not merely tolerated.

It is particularly encouraging that the response talks about belonging – psychological trust – and not just diversity and inclusion

It is particularly encouraging that the response talks about belonging – psychological trust – and not just diversity (numbers) and inclusion (participation). And the steps are clear, with positive action, role modelling and networks all appearing in the department’s thinking. This suggests that the issue is being taken more seriously, with representatives from the Gender Networks working with the secretary of state, ministers and the new Director Diversity and Inclusion in holding action owners to account for delivery of a cross-Defence diversity and inclusion action plan. This may represent the first time there has been proper governance and a clear action plan. If so, it is very welcome – even if long overdue. But inclusion cannot apply to only part of the workforce. The trick now is for work to be broadened beyond pure gender and into other areas where Defence struggles with its approach to diversity.

Defence was explicitly replying to a report on women in the armed forces, but the notion of ‘intersectionality’ – where an individual’s social identities overlap and cause cumulative disadvantage through many or all of those identities – needs to be considered. Nothing done in the context of gender should be confined to that alone. Other Networks need to be engaged and lessons shared as Defence improves. A good starting point would be to ensure learning from the different Services and civil service is shared effectively, and the response is notable for how often good practice is identified in one Service but not at Defence level.

Overall, there are signs that Defence is taking diversity, inclusion and belonging seriously, but that has been said before. The HCDC and others need to monitor this closely, helped by the department’s commitments to greater capturing of data and – it is hoped – transparency, to ensure not only that the actions are delivered quickly, but that in doing so, the outcomes are achieved. Female personnel, and other Service personnel suffering from discrimination, harassment and sometimes horrific abuse, deserve nothing less.

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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Paul O’Neill

Director, Military Sciences

Military Sciences

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