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Editor’s note: this article forms part of our #ChoosetoChallenge21 series.
“As [Auxiliary Territorial Service Women] leave us they deserve a cheer… By their efforts during the late war they have earned the respect and admiration of fighting men everywhere
and have rendered a service that this country will not quickly forget.”
What follows is a personal account of serving alongside women in the British Army. Here, I lay bare my personal experiences and prejudices so that others may be encouraged to think and to act. Readers won’t see a critique of literature, nor theoretical models; I write to explore a rollercoaster ride which has forced me to reflect deeply on how I lead people. This isn’t an argument for, or a defence of, women in ground close combat. Instead, it is an argument against hindrances to organisational progression at the individual level and it is equally applicable to leading any underrepresented group of people. The Army seeks to be an inclusive organisation, and it has come a long way in recent years, yet we can do and be so much better.
As a Corporal I was selected to be a training instructor at a training establishment. While there, I discovered I would be instructing an all-female platoon for their initial military training. At this point I had already led three sections of twelve men through their basic training. I was extremely proud of their turnout and they had been consistently award-winning. I didn’t want to instruct women. I’m not proud of my perspective on this as a junior leader, and the more I reflect on it the more I struggle with it. I mean, I really didn’t want to instruct women. Why was I disgruntled? Did I think I would not be moulding another award-winning group of recruits on the basis that they were women?
A thing to consider is, whether we as leaders like it or not, we don’t get to decide who is in our team. People are assembled, they pull together, move forward together, and follow orders together. This is especially so in the Army. Leadership is a behaviour that influences performance: thankfully, I had a hard look in the mirror and thought about this before the new intake arrived. And with a pit in my stomach I reluctantly told myself to see it as a challenge instead of a problem. Little did I know that by the end of this experience I would be completely transformed, evolving from a narrow-minded process driven and selfish instructor through to a fulfilled and stimulated people-orientated leader.
Admittedly, I knew there was something wrong with how I was thinking. I was conflicted since I had no discernible or determinable problem with servicewomen. I also knew deep down there was no reason to doubt women’s ability to succeed in the Army, I’d not seen any evidence to the contrary. While undergoing my own basic training we had a female section commander among the training team, she was remarkable. As a Lance Corporal on exercise in Norway, I met a British servicewoman who was brandishing a commando badge having passed the gruelling Commando Course. I remember thinking that a lot of my friends had failed the course; strong and capable men who had fallen by the wayside while others didn’t even want to attempt it. Furthermore, I’d been on infantry foot patrols in Afghanistan with female Combat Medical Technicians, doing the same job as me but with the added responsibility of looking after wounded people at the point of injury. No problems there whatsoever, in fact I was impressed.
And yet, somehow, I gained a dim view of servicewomen and had taken this on with blind acceptance. I had internalised patriarchal views and there was a distant voice whispering from within telling me something wasn’t right with my reaction. I now know that I was allowing cultural behaviours to change me as a person.
A Cultural Problem
Reflecting on this is where I struggle; I grew up with a mother and sisters. I had women around me in my numerous civilian jobs prior to service and some mentored me. I then served alongside women, some of whom I had been responsible for. No issues, no problems. Within the workplace environment there was a subtle, and not-so-subtle, culture of misogynist mentalities influencing people’s thinking around me. In my first ten years of service I had heard again and again that men would not be able to hear women scream on the battlefield without losing a sense of duty over their protection, compromising the mission. The age-old argument ‘females aren’t as capable’ reared its head consistently and persistently. Beyond that was the incorrect yet reinforced belief that women were inferior and secondary to men when it came to warfare.
I didn’t hate women by any stretch of the imagination. But my respect for women had been eroded over time.
It becomes relatively easy to unpack; because misogynistic tendencies were normalised around me and I wanted to belong. Overtly institutionalised and laddish macho mindsets had a detrimental impact on cultural inclusivity. As a junior soldier, not once had I heard a convincing argument for women in ground close combat (GCC). Not even by servicewomen or female veterans.
There has been tangible strategic investment across the Army in terms of diversity and inclusion. Yet misogyny, sexism, and gender biases existed when I was a junior soldier. And they still do today. This permeates across everyday attitudes, language, behaviours, and organisational culture. Sadly, it swayed my own perceptions and changed the view I had of women.
What’s worrying is I certainly wasn’t alone in developing this mentality. I recall some individuals having a visibly clear and obvious problem with women being in the Army, some were even open about their perspective in front of peers and their chain of command. Personal naivety, unit culture, and wanting to belong caused my own attitude shift in the wrong direction and I’d allowed my respect for servicewomen to unjustifiably diminish.
Time to Reflect
I look back through critical lenses and remember many throwaway comments being made about women, things said purely to spite women, institutionalised groupthink, entrenched prejudice… the list goes on. This was further exacerbated by women being unable to apply for combat roles, which inevitably fuelled arguments against servicewomen and supported excuses for cultural prejudices and ingrained laziness. All unchallenged by people around me, and all normalised by culture.
Combine these with a lack of female representation and the realities of being in an environment that trains people to kill while being physically exhausted and mentally fatigued. What you get is a rich breeding ground for exaggerated stereotypical masculine behaviour and, as a byproduct, misogynistic mentalities. Additionally, this was and predominantly remains, a male-derived culture in a hyper-masculine environment within a male dominated organisation.
Having women in our team doesn’t ‘create’ problems, it brings ‘different’ problems. It is a reflection on the leader if they are incapable of or unwilling to embrace problems… it’s what we do.
If I was grappling with internalised moral dissonance, who else had these views? Were they reflecting on it or acting in a way that reinforced misguided or patriarchal attitudes? And, importantly, what organisational harm was being caused by this anachronistic way of thinking? Embracing the varying challenges that our people bring, and overcoming them to facilitate performance no matter what – recognising individual strengths and weaknesses – should be every leader’s bread and butter. It is, then, incumbent on us as individuals to think and to influence in a way that maximises the potential of all members of our team. One uniform, one team, one common goal. Having women in our team doesn’t ‘create’ problems, it brings ‘different’ problems. It is a reflection on the leader if they are incapable of or unwilling to embrace problems… it’s what we do.
Personal and Professional Growth
But back to my story…
When it came to my female section, I was thinking about the wrong things: point scoring, short term objectives, and immediate tasks at hand in favour of my section’s connection with one-another and their connection with me. I wanted ‘winners’, in part for their benefit and in part for my own. I put my own interests first and it was likely to have been obvious to my recruits. As a consequence, barriers were created and I felt like I wasn’t getting through to them effectively. There was something missing from the trajectory that I wanted from them, and commanding compliance was not enough if I wanted them to be a highly functioning team.
Taking on the appearance of a ‘role model’, relying on rank, badges, and physical prowess, didn’t seem to cut it. Defaulting to transactional approaches simply weren’t working, nor were fear based tactics. These approaches were considerably easier with male recruits, and I’d grown too comfortable and accustomed to them because they commanded compliance.
Put simply, I excelled at the easy, common, shortest possible route. This promptly caused my recruits’ performance to plateau. With that came the threat of producing below criteria recruits while damaging my professional status in the eyes of others. I needed to take swift and meaningful action to turn it around.
The last thing we need is for everybody to think and act the same when battling with the complexities of modern warfare.
It appeared that I needed to do the difficult work of nurturing genuine commitment to one-another and to me. When I thought about how I had led women in previous roles I had an epiphany. It was obvious; I treated them all like men. This is suboptimal at best for two reasons. Firstly because some approaches work better than others, especially when thinking to the future, and secondly because if we treat women like men they start to behave like men. This is important since the Army doesn’t want women to behave like men, it wants and needs women to be themselves. If we condition women to act like men, we negate the qualities that they bring and render ourselves holistically less effective. The last thing we need is for everybody to think and act the same when battling with the complexities of modern warfare.
Being brutally honest with myself uncovered some uncomfortable realities. My male sections did win awards, but was I conditioning them to focus on criteria rather than leading them to thorough professionalism? They certainly had a will to win, were aggressive, and would instantly respond to orders. But had I meaningfully led or transformed them? The answer was yes and no. They all met the standards, they were all ‘changed men’ at the end of their basic training, and where point-scoring mattered they scored points. I could have done better for them because I often did almost all of their thinking for them — meaning they could go on to be uncomfortable with thinking for themselves, unpredictability, uncertainty, and autonomy.
Change beliefs and behaviours, win prizes
I needed to change my behavioural pattern since I was having a negative effect on my new section’s trust in me, so I began to deviate from certain characteristics. This started with an admission that I was uncomfortable and even vulnerable at times because I’d stepped into the unknown while simultaneously holding back an excessive fear of failure — these fears were naturally entirely mutual. Said characteristics included selfishness, excessive control, too much assertion, being overly competitive, and the perception of me personally striving for achievement based on their performance. Those characteristics produce unthinking robots, but the Army needs thinking soldiers. My behaviour pattern did, however, remain flexible which allowed me to revert to assertion and competitiveness when appropriate.
Treat women like men, and we start to lose our ability to connect with them because they aren’t being themselves.
People naturally care more about others who are like themselves, who share values, language, appearance, and backgrounds. Hence it is more challenging, however marginal, for men to make a meaningful connection when leading women. This is especially so when male leaders are treating women like men. Compassion, not empathy, is a trait that nurtures genuine commitment and bolsters trust. I suspect this permeates across genders, but I also believe that women are more perceptive and receptive to transformational, quiet, meaningfully connected leadership if you are a male leader. This was the case for my section, and female subordinates thereafter.
People, people, people
Another thing I did was think about my ego and how it was getting in the way of connecting, then sought to replace it with a dignified confidence. Notably and in hindsight; by showing increasingly altruistic, conscientious, and compassionate leadership behaviours I was able to strengthen trust and commitment levels with them. Some people might argue that this sounds a lot like soft leadership. To this I’d argue that it isn’t. Instead, it is about making full use of the often hidden or misunderstood value of quiet leadership. Treat people like unthinking robots, and they behave like them. Treat people like brutes and savages, and they start to act like it. Treat women like men, and we start to lose our ability to connect with them because they aren’t being themselves.
Warfare is not a gendered activity, it hasn’t been for a long time, and having women in GCC is not a ‘social experiment’ or ‘political correctness’. Being prejudiced about women and maintaining unjustified cynicism over their ability to perform as soldiers in the modern army is pure-and-simple laziness. Regardless of what some people might think about women, they are operating among armed forces and special forces around the world today. They have been fighting behind enemy lines or as part of the modern 360 degree battlefield, and they have been dying alongside their male counterparts for many, many years.
Our sisters in arms shouldn’t have to prove anything beyond what we all must as individual people, nor should women have to face a leader who excludes them or views them with contempt. Thankfully, women are now able to serve in combat roles, and this has helped to positively influence prejudices, attitudes, and assumptions. It is important to note that women in combat is only the start. There’s a chasm of difference between being ‘open’ and creating a culture where women can actually thrive.
Leadership is a behaviour that influences performance. When this clicked for me, and I started leading with a genuine people-orientated focus, I started to truly enjoy my job. Doing so gave meaning in a way that I’d previously not connected with. Furthermore, leading in a way that put people first meant that I found leadership stimulating, meaningful, rewarding, and fulfilling. I was all the better as a person for it. With this came a significant revelation for me; the real beneficiary from all this was, unintentionally, me. And it took a section of female recruits to show me this. Would I have come to these progressive conclusions without them? I struggle to accept so, at least not for some time and by then may it have been too late.
There will always be an enduring requirement for all of our people to be their best. We need to stop trying to condition women so that they behave like men, and we need to garner the plentiful advantages that this will yield. If we as individuals feel a need to question the validity of servicewomen, or see them as secondary to servicemen, we need to take a long hard look in the mirror. The continued progression of our organisation depends on it. So, I implore you, lead women not as secondary to men, and not like men. Everybody is trainable, everybody has untapped potential. It’s time to let women bring their whole self and their unique strengths to the party. It’s time to treat servicewomen as women.
Phil Mitten is a serving SNCO with operational experience in Afghanistan. A Centre for Army Leadership Activist with a keen interest in the lived experience of personnel, much of his focus is on ground level leadership, followership, retention, and personnel development. During his service he self-studied a Masters in Education with a leadership and management specialisation, and an Honours Degree in History.