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Diversity in the MOD: Poisoned Chalice or Golden Opportunity?

The Ministry of Defence has come a long way on diversity in a very short time. When I joined it as a young civil servant in the mid-1990s, it was still illegal for gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the Armed Forces, and remained so until 2000. The Women’s Royal Naval Service had only just (1993) been integrated into the Royal Navy. The first senior civil servant I worked for was a woman who had joined before the marriage bar was lifted in the Foreign Office.

Now we march in uniform for Pride and light up our buildings with the rainbow flag, the first women have reached 2* and 3* rank in the Army and RAF, and the Services frequently appear in those lists of the Top 50 employers of women, LGBTQ+ people, and people of colour.

But if all was entirely well, the Ministry of Defence would not be advertising for a Director of Diversity and Inclusion with an advert that states “we know we are not sufficiently diverse, and we are determined to deliver tangible progress at pace”. The self-awareness in that statement is welcome and a change from a lack of critical self-examination to which Defence has frequently defaulted when put on the spot on these issues in the past. As well as making progress at pace, I see welcome recognition that the institutional response to, for example, the protests against racism in the wake of the killing of George Floyd must be thorough and enduring.

For the lucky person who secures the role, it is a potentially career-defining opportunity to make a profound and positive difference to the lived experience of hundreds of thousands of people. Especially for someone coming into Defence from another sector, it is also a daunting task in an institution which has in the past proved resistant to people and ideas on diversity from outside.

So, let’s take it as read that the appointee will implement the Wigston Review on inappropriate behaviours in full, and champion improvements to the complaints and grievance systems so that they are fit for purpose. What should be their six top priorities for early action?

1. Senior representation

You will have heard all of the arguments from those who don’t think this is an area where intervention is needed. For example, the senior ranks of the Armed Forces reflect the demographics of intakes twenty to thirty years ago, and it will all come right with time. Women take career breaks to have children so can’t be expected to keep up with men. People from Black, Asian and minority backgrounds have a long and glorious history of serving their country, and continue to do so. The last of these is clearly true, so one might wonder why so few reach senior rank – 99.8% of 1* and above officers were white at the last count.

In relation to gender diversity, not all women by any means pause their careers for maternity, and most other professions do not find this an insurmountable bar to senior representation. For example, 33% of MPs are women, 32% of court judges, 27% of senior police officers, and 22% of Church of England bishops. Some of these senior women are mothers, just as some senior male leaders are fathers. Things are still not changing quickly enough – 4.5% of 1* and above officers were men at the last count, compared to 10.8% of Regular Forces as a whole, and the proportion of women officers at all ranks has increased by 1.1% in the last 8 years. 65 women have been into space; 34 have made it to 1* or above in the history of the British Armed Forces. This is clearly not good enough.

Too often the argument is made that seeking to increase diversity at senior levels is “positive discrimination” driven by “political correctness” and that the Armed Forces are a meritocracy driven by the needs of operational effectiveness. If there really were a level playing field, then the numbers of women and people from minority ethnic backgrounds in senior ranks would be higher than it is. And the Armed Forces cannot ignore the battle for talent – they cannot afford not to draw on the skills, expertise and diverse perspectives of whole sectors of society, or they will face institutional decline. The Chiefs put maximising talent at the heart of their recent statement on diversity and inclusion. So the incoming Diversity Director should identify the reasons for this under-representation – for example the existence of distorting conscious and unconscious biases in reporting, promotion and selection processes, despite efforts to stamp this out – and push through more effectively targeted interventions to make a difference.

2. Leadership

Not so long ago I sat with horror in the “cheap seats” of a meeting at which two subsequently ennobled senior military personnel dismissed the need for Defence to do more to make itself diverse and inclusive. Their views, which they advanced at length, would have seemed a bit reactionary in the 1950s – let alone today.

No-one now doubts (do they?) that the vast majority of senior leaders in Defence recognise the importance of this agenda and are willing to invest their own time in making it happen. However, the number who are able to do so instinctively, confidently and authentically is very much smaller. Too often I have seen the debate and discussion avoided because senior leaders are worried about saying the wrong thing, or don’t really understand what people want of them. For example, while Defence did put out some sincere and widely welcomed statements in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, they could have been quicker and more leaders could have acted on their own authority to do so.

Another example is that you rarely hear senior leaders talking about LGBTQ+ issues. I believe this is partly because of the frequent changes in what is considered appropriate language, and their wish to avoid inadvertently saying the wrong thing. The incoming Diversity Director should, behind closed doors, help senior leaders gain confidence to speak and act in ways which will drive a change of mood from the top. Ideally this would shift the focus from meeting our legal obligations and ensuring equality to something more positive which truly values all aspects of the diversity of our people – inclusion. It is no longer enough to settle for a working environment that does not actively discriminate against some of its members; we need to work harder to build one that actively values diversity of background, experience, skills and ways of thinking. I am not knocking the good progress that has been made, but there is so much more to do before all of our people feel this way.

3. Training

Good people have worked very hard over the years to deliver diversity and inclusion training to Defence. They were generally underfunded, undervalued and had a deeply limited remit. Even now, too much of the training comes from a perspective of complying with legislation and handling complaints, rather than how we harness the full potential of the workforce by enabling them to bring their whole selves to the job. I am sure many readers will have spent an unhappy day or two in a classroom in Shrivenham doing their mandatory training with a group of “backwoodsmen” who did not want to be there. I certainly heard – there’s no way of dressing this up – some pretty racist opinions expressed. It did not fill me with great hope for the effective discharge of their roles as unit diversity and inclusion advisers.

More than that, the focus in recent years on “Unconscious Bias” training only gets you so far – it risks falling into the category of preaching to the converted and failing to consciously address actions and thinking that inhibit progress. In the current public debate on “cancel culture” it is often said that you cannot simply assert the case for anti-racism or gender equality, you have to persuade people through debate and argument. I am not arguing for some kind of “woke” approach that will turn off as many people as it persuades. However, our training should look at our relationships not just from the unconscious biases we carry ourselves, but at the lived experiences of other people different from us, and how we can treat everyone with whom we live and work with respect and understanding that is all too often absent in the current debate about a range of diversity issues.

And of course formal command and staff courses are at the heart of the path to senior leadership in Defence. Last I saw, important themes such as sexual violence in conflict were elective modules rather than integral to the curriculum. If Defence wants to be serious about diversity and inclusion, and be seen to be so, it would revisit these curricula, as well as those in initial training establishments, with that outcome in mind. So, a fundamental overhaul of training should be high on the Diversity Director’s to do list.

4. Micro-behaviours

Some of these are not actually so “micro” – most senior women and people of colour in Defence will regularly have been mistaken for a senior man’s PA or asked to make the tea or had their presence at the table in a meeting questioned. But everyone in Defence knows what I am talking about here – the endemic and frequently unchallenged use of gendered language, the briefing that starts “sirs … oh, and ma’am” (I won’t mention Phonegate), uniforms that don’t fit and “or female equivalent” dress codes, the single loo for women miles down the corridor, the arm on the back of the chair or worse, the sudden silence when you enter the room. Add to this the insidious consequences of a culture overly focused on alcohol, on which there is a whole other article to be written.

As I say, there is much to celebrate about MOD’s approach to diversity and inclusion and most people, regardless of gender, race or sexuality, love working for it. But all of this, every day, is just exhausting to put up with. People will say that these are small things, that it is a fool’s errand to try to change all of this. These people are wrong. These constant annoyances, individually minor but never ending, are many people’s lived experience of Defence. This is a barrier to enabling their best performance and it reduces retention of skilled personnel. The Diversity Director should spend some time early on understanding and calling out these behaviours; it would set the tone and enable marginal gains which over time will add up to culture change.

Of course, it will take more than one person calling these things out to enable proper culture change; there is a risk progress will be short-lived or superficial unless there is a concerted effort to train people to recognise and call out these problems themselves within an environment that is at times overly deferential and hierarchical – there has been some good work already, such as Defence Academy Active Bystander initiative, but they need scaling for the organisation as a whole as part of the fundamental overhaul of training I am advocating.

5. Situational awareness

Just as the Queen might think everywhere smells of fresh paint, how will a Diversity Director get behind the façade they will inevitably be presented with, especially if they have not got previous experience of Defence or a similar culture? The environment on the fifth and sixth floors of Main Building is a world away from that of most of the rest of the organisation. Regardless of anything else, it is simply not the best place to get a representative view of the daily lived experience of diversity and inclusion in Defence.

Not that many years ago, I visited one of the Remote Radar Heads in the Falkland Islands, about as far away in geography and atmosphere from Whitehall as you can get. The visit took an unscheduled turn when chatting to the lads posted there they complained (rightly) about the quality of their accommodation, so I asked to see it – opening the door of one cabin I was greeted briefly, before the door was closed by the slightly aghast host from Mount Pleasant Camp, by four walls completely covered in a very extensive and eclectic pornography collection. A few “mystery shopper” style visits out of the Westminster bubble will help the new Director get a feel for the best and worst of Defence in this respect.

6. Iconography

Another divisive topic in the wake of the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston is the treatment of icons. The updating of a memorial at RAF Scampton to remove a racial slur from it seems to have upset a lot of people who are not black and who do not live and work in close proximity to it. Defence can and should go further –Is it right that the Navy has an establishment named after a leading participant in one of the first British slaving expeditions? Is it right that a number of barracks at Tidworth are named after battles fought on behalf of the East India Company? The answer is surely no. Defence should also revisit the collections of Regimental museums and the like, and have a policy on returning looted treasures.

That said, beyond tackling the most egregious examples, tackling historical iconography like this risks disillusioning and annoying people without making significant improvements to people’s lived experience. The impact of the walls filled with photos of former Chiefs, Defence Secretaries and others, and honours boards of exclusively male former post-holders, is arguably much more oppressive and anti-diversity. I liked the FCO’s approach of installing mirrors with key post titles under them so anyone could picture themselves in that role, and I note the success they have had. Of course we should remember and recognise our distinguished predecessors, but in the context of a visibly diverse built environment for Defence. An incoming Diversity Director will have a window of opportunity to address these issues before they once again get put in the “too difficult” category, as they have before.

Those are six pretty big issues, on top of the implementation of Wigston and championing necessary improvement to the complaints and grievance processes. Implementing them would be a difficult and long-term process; which would require immense resilience, vision and skill to lead. However, Defence – and the country at large – can only benefit from the effort. I sincerely wish the successful candidate every success in ensuring this is a golden opportunity for themselves and for Defence as a whole.

Rob S

Rob is a former defence and national security civil servant


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