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Long Read Opinion People and Leadership

Diversity in the MOD: Poisoned Chalice or Golden Opportunity?

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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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1 comment

Tommy Atkins August 26, 2020 at 12:26

I normally read the Wavellroom military articles with interest because it can be educational to get alternative or new view, but I had to comment on this story because it appear the author either genuinely doesnt know the facts or he is purposely omitting them because articles on diversity are quite popular at the moment.
Those running the military are open to a lot of criticism that frankly they deserve but not from the majority of this story.
My own background is that I left the Army last year after 24 years, I was a SSgt, I was part of the support arms. My last unit was massively over represented by BAME/Lesbians(not gay men) and minority religions compared to the UK average (mainly at other ranks level). When I joined being gay was banned, females had joined the support arms three years previously (When the WRAC were disbanded) and BAME were a rarity. My best friend who I went through basic training with (When it was mixed training) is a female who is a serving LE Major.
I’ll do it point by point and my opinion applies only to the Army not the other branches.
1, Senior Representation.
There are several reasons why there are few women at the top of the Army, the first is that to be at the very top tier you have to be teeth arms, if you were a white, heterosexual male but joined the REME/RLC/AGC you will not ever be the CGS. As females have only just been allowed to join the infantry, gay people couldnt join until 2000 and until the last 15 or so years BAME was massively under represented, they were in the same position as the white, heterosexual male in the REME/RLC/AGC, they couldnt be at the very senior level now. If you were a fantastic male or female soldier, but not teeth Arms, why would you hang around knowing that you will never be the “CEO” of the company? You would bug out and find employment where you can get to the top. This will now change in the Army because Females and gays can now serve in the infantry and more BAME are joining but it will take literally decades for the young female cadet at Sandhurst going into the infantry to be qualified to be the CGS (Just as it will a man).
Another factor is pregnancy, like it or not, the Army is very physically demanding, not just running around with a back pack, but living under a poncho, commanding a vehicle etc, a birth can take a woman away from full combat effectiveness for up to two years (their deployablility during and directly after pregnancy), 2 children and thats four years away from their combat role, meanwhile their peers get the experience and promotions. (If a man had 4 years restricted duties due to injuries in the combat arms, especially when he is young, he would also struggle to keep up with his peers).
Thirdly, lots of women (Their choice) want to be with their children they are young, they dont want to go away on tour for six months, all the other jobs you mentioned are in most situations never going to be away from their children for more than a few days. There were quite a few decent female soldiers that left the Army because they chose to be with their children, there is nothing that the Army can do about that.
2, Leadership
You are right when you say that officers are wary about not wanting to say the wrong thing, mainly because even if they have good intentions its a career killer to say the wrong thing. A couple of occasions that I can think of when the Army has highlighted people from a minority as being ambassadors for the Army only for those individuals to disgrace themselves shortly afterwards. Officers dont like to be put on the spot, for example if a devoutly religious individual objects to sharing a room with a gay individual what does the Army do? What ever it does someone from a minority is going to be offended. A particularly memorable occasion was when two black lads were shouting across a lecture theatre about the use of the N-word (one being for in some circumstances while the other against in all circumstances) while all the officers stared down at the floor not wanting to get involved.
There are whole sections of the Army that involve minorities not liking other minorities, based on race, sexuality and religion. The Army tiptoes around this because it doesnt want to be seen favouring one minority over another. Your plan for inclusion is a non starter you cant force people to like/respect other people, you can explain why you think they shouldnt and you can punish them if their dislike become interferes with their job but you will never make them change their opinion.
3, Training
I believe that unconscious bias in the Army is rarely ever based on skin colour/sexuality. I will admit that when it come to choosing a male or female for a physical tasks, men are more likely to be chosen because they are (Rightly or wrongly) deemed to be be more physically capable, but in my experience a female officer is as guilty of that as much as a male.
The vast majority unconscious bias in the army comes from how you look/act. That’s why officers place so much importance in petty things like no beards. If you are black and look smart in a your uniform you will be thought of better than if you were white and scruffy, despite your actual abilities.
4, Micro Behaviours
i have never once seen in 24 years a female and/or BAME officer mistaken for either a PA or be told to make the tea. The Army wear their rank quite predominantly on their chest, so it would be almost impossible to think (For example) a female colonel is a PA to a male colonel or tell her to get the brews on. I also cant think of any buildings where the women have to walk any distance to go to the toilet, there might well be some, but not at any location Ive ever been to.
You clearly have not been to many Army camps recently, although there is an alcohol culture, its massively over exaggerated, a lot of camps dont even have bars for their junior ranks and the Messes are dead except when there is a function on.
What you referred to as gendered language isnt challenged because the majority of people (Male and female) do not care. Some females will say “sir” when answering the phone, not because they are sexist female, but because its a habit that they picked up when they joined. Did you notice that those that have a problem with what you call gendered language tend to be a small minority of famale officers who will insist that they are always address as Ma’am, because clearly egalitarian only applies when you want to be offended. Just to be absolutely clear on this, the majority of females in the Army have better things to worry about than gendered language.
If you want an example of some pretty shocking behaviour towards females in the Army, how about that the Army sometimes allows those who have been convicted and sentenced to MCTC for sexual assault being allowed to continue to serve. What do you think affect females more? Gendered language or sex offenders being allowed to served (In some cases in the same unit as the female they assaulted).
5, Situational awareness
You have a valid point about how anyone is supposed to know what is going on at the coal face, even if they turned up unannounced they are unlikely to see much. Even asking the soldiers will produce a bias results as the small minority who are always offended will complain and the those with genuine but minor complaints will keep quiet.
I dont have any idea how to fix it. However if you meet them, get them to ask the military why they let convicted sex offenders to continue to serve.
6, Iconography
Without doubt the most woke part of your article, the vast majority of serving people black, brown, white or nice shade of green have no idea who or what the majority of the defence estate is named after.
Im intrigued to know what looted treasurs you think the regimental museums have, everyone Ive seen is usually nicked from an opposing army (Quite a few from the french) who were in turn were nicking it from elsewhere. Its nothing like the Elgin Marbles or Egyptian treasures from the Pyramids.

I’ll finish of wit some advice for the author, go and talk to the BAME/Female/Gay soldiers out of the work environment and by that I mean not an organised event, where you listen to the most vocal. The vast majority of them do not want to be known a a Female/gay/black/Sikh soldier, they want to be known as a soldier, I can remember one of my Sikh soldiers wanting a report on a recruitment drive changed (of which I fully backed him up to do so) because a officer had written something along the lines of a sterling example to potential Sikh recruits, the officer had done it thinking he was good to the soldier, the soldier on the other hand didnt want to be known as an example to other Sikhs, he wanted to be known as an example to everyone. There was a lesbian Cpl on my last camp who put the CoC nose right out of joint by refusing to pose for a photo under the pride flag, because she was a soldier, not a gay soldier.
The Army faces many problems, a soldier who is from a minority is less likely to be bothered about being call Sir (if female), photos of white, heterosexual male officers or that Private Bloggs has some porn on his room wall. They are more likely to be very much bothered about lack of funding, bone tasking being forced to be poster childs for military wanting to show how inclusive they are.


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