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It was not until 2018 that the British Defence Secretary announced that all roles in the Army were open to women. Unfortunately, the prevailing culture within the Army still keeps women from accessing equal opportunities. Despite all roles now being legally open to women on paper, they still experience a “sense of not being welcomed in”.1 Scrutiny has intensified in the Armed Forces, as breaches of codes of conduct and sometimes the law have come to light. These cases have drawn attention at the highest levels of government and media, suggesting symptoms of a deeper sickness over isolated events. The Atherton report provided a Defence level overview of systemic disadvantages women face in the Armed Forces, complemented by other internal and external reviews. All suggest deep-seated issues regarding the treatment of women in the Army that lessen effectiveness. While this prevailing culture remains, the Army will never receive the full effect of its servicewomen. While notable figures acknowledge the Army is much more effective if members are fully integrated, there seems to be a gap between writing and implementing policies, preventing the Army from achieving its intended outcomes.2 This article will demonstrate how prevailing culture impacts women socially, physically and therefore professionally within the Army, all impacting their integration.
Integration is understood as a “dynamic, multi-actor process of mutual engagement that facilitates effective participation by all members of a diverse society in economic, political and social life, and fosters a shared sense of belonging.” Culture is seen as values, beliefs, language, communication, and practices shared by a group of people. Impact is the effect on people and communities resulting from an action or inaction, an activity, project, programme or policy. Lastly, hegemonic masculinity is the theoretical framework used for this essay and is what militaries worldwide are built on, and so determines what they prize (male norm).3 It is “a practice that legitimises powerful men’s dominant position in society and justifies the subordination of women.” 4 Where data is missing on the British Army, it will be assumed that research in similar armies can be comparable. Similarly, it is assumed that wider research on British culture is comparable when discussing attitudes towards women in the British Army. It is necessary to make these comparisons for depth of analysis due to a lack of research on women in Defence. The Army may be referred to in broader terms of Defence, the Military, etc.
Although women appear to be on an equal footing to their male colleagues in law, arbitrary barriers remain. Harmful practices and social norms and an unwillingness to acknowledge traditional beliefs as harmful or inaccurate drive unacceptable behaviours towards women, stifling the voices of victims and protecting perpetrators. Sexual assault and harassment are gendered crimes, with the overwhelming majority of victims being women and the overwhelming majority of perpetrators being male. While unacceptable behaviours are not an exclusive problem to the Army, the prevailing culture enhanced by a greater overlap of workspace and life space and authority imbalances facilitating coercive behaviour increases the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in the Armed Forces.5
Many incidents of sexual offences are not recorded in crime statistics by the Armed Forces, suggesting the reporting rate is far higher than that published. 6 The lack of transparency from the MOD does not inspire confidence that there is an earnest drive to prevent unacceptable and illegal behaviours but suggests a desire to be outwardly perceived as making change whilst hiding the true nature and scale of the problem. How the Army responds to, and deals with cases of sexual assault and harassment directly feeds into the prevailing culture impacting the integration of women. Military courts have a much lower conviction rate for sexual offences than civilian ones, while all other crimes have similar conviction rates.7 90% of sexual offences do not get reported as it is not believed that anything will be done about it, and 75% of service personnel reporting have suffered negative consequences as a result of making a formal complaint.8 The disproportionate numbers of servicewomen complaining of bullying, harassment and discrimination in comparison to servicemen begs the question why there is yet to be independent research conducted into why, as well as improved data collection and publication on all sexual offending.
Pornography and culture
Although Defence’s response to the Atherton Report, and other such reviews, seemingly addresses the seriousness of committing sexual crimes, it rejects multiple recommendations with little justification. In all its new policies and schemes, the Army seems to have missed an opportunity: seeking out and addressing the root cause of such behaviour. Aside from making it clear that watching pornography at work where someone might ‘reasonably’ be expected to see it is now unacceptable, it does not mention the real impact men’s consumption of pornography has on women at home and in the workplace. It also ignores the realities of sex trafficking in the porn industry and the obvious moral implications of viewing such material. Pornography has been shown to increase harmful attitudes on rape myths and the objectification of women and girls.9 This was recently demonstrated by the Third Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, where there was an orgy between multiple service personnel and a civilian woman. Although the men involved were punished, the incident speaks of a concerning pattern of male sexual entitlement in the Army that seeks to denigrate women, including through sex, while glorifying hyper-masculinity. A culture where men rejoice in viewing women as inferior (objects to use and mock) will not improve until service personnel are educated on the harms of how women are portrayed through the media, especially in pornography.
Similar treatment of women has been seen across multiple organisations, including the creation of ‘rape lists’, where submariner men rated submariner women on who would be raped first in a crisis. Whilst horrifying, none of these events can be classed as shocking or even surprising. They have occurred because of hegemonic masculinity10, where a toxic culture excused as ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘laddish banter’ has been allowed to flourish and often promoted. Putting policies in place and following through with punishing those in breach may influence overt unacceptable behaviour. Still, unless the root cause of men’s attitudes towards women, in general, is understood and actively combatted, the prevailing culture will likely remain, finding new, subtler ways to carry on. A recent Ofsted report tells of child-on-child sexual abuse increasing at unprecedented rates11 due to the proliferation and the increasingly violent nature of pornography.12 Such statistics shine a light on future recruiting and retention. If the Army wants to change its culture and set the standard for inclusivity so that women can truly be integrated into its ranks, it must understand the future workforce and the issues they present. It must equally acknowledge the current harm pornography does to servicewomen, even if it is considered legal under British law.
Societal expectations impact how women are treated in the workplace through unacceptable behaviours and by denying them equal opportunity to progress. Division of parental leave illustrates this. Research shows that without early involvement, fathers are less likely to take on childcare responsibilities. However, even when paternity leave beyond the mandatory two weeks is offered to men, they rarely take it. This is due to several factors, such as societal pressure and fear of careers being negatively affected. Opting out of parental leave is not a realistic option for women, and the gap this creates fosters a bias against motherhood that even impacts servicewomen who never intend on having children.13 Flexible service and wrap-around childcare can only do so much if the emphasis remains on women being responsible for childrearing. This unequal burden of parenthood is illustrated when looking at the number of male mid to senior-ranking officers who have children (90%) compared to women (10%).14 This sends a clear message: if you are a woman in the military and want to excel, you must choose between your career or having a family. As such, starting a family is the primary reason women leave the Army prematurely. If the Army is serious about recruiting and retaining the right people to create a diverse and effective organisation, then policies such as this need to change. If servicemen were mandated to take six months paternity leave at full pay, there would be no gap for discrimination. Perceptions that caregiving is a woman’s responsibility would shift,15 actively helping women integrate as the motherhood penalty dwindles. Women would have the time they need to recover without the worry of reducing their career prospects, and long-term retention post-birth would increase.
Think of women from the start
A lack of gender-disaggregated data disadvantages women in all aspects of society. In the Army, this manifests in focusing the testing of equipment, nutritional advice and training programmes primarily on men. This presents serious problems for servicewomen’s health and safety. In fact, failure to account for women’s body sizes in the Army means that women are up to seven times more likely to suffer musculoskeletal injuries than men when they have the same aerobic fitness and strength. It took years after the initial issue of VIRTIS body armour for senior officials to recognise they should probably have tested its suitability in protecting women, not just men. Research found that a woman’s risk of injury increases fivefold when carrying more than 25% of her body weight, caused in part because bergens are designed for the male physique. This forces women to compensate for packs built around typical male upper body strength (on average 50% higher than women) rather than capitalising women’s more significant lower body strength by transferring weight through the hips. Basic research, such as how breast size effects lifting techniques associated with back pain is also still absent. Women, on average, are more susceptible to lower temperatures than men and so cold weather kit tested for men is not necessarily appropriate for women. Data also shows on average, women have smaller hands than men.
Despite this, the Army still adopts a one-size-fits-all approach as though it’s the same as one-size-fits-all. Tools and equipment designed for the average male hand size can make operating them more difficult for women. Vehicles are also less safe for women, as they are primarily tested with a male anatomically correct crash dummy. Due to the differences in physiology, this makes women 47% more likely to be seriously injured in the same crash and 17% more likely to be killed.16 Although there is work being done to remedy some of these gaps, it all strikes as too little too late. The Army’s procurement system is often a long and frustrating which increases the necessity to test on men and women from the start so the end product offers the best protection and useability for all service personnel. The Army needs to recognise in more than words that women are not just small men.
Gendered language impacts women’s participation in all aspects of society. It shapes views of what women’s roles are and are not, leading to the marginalisation of women and reinforcing traditional gender roles. Removing gender from language tied to certain roles, positions or jobs can advance and promote equality between men and women. Titles such as guardsmen and cavalryman still exist under the guise of preserving tradition and protecting history. It does not follow that history will be lost if vernacular changes to be inclusive of women. The RAF and its air servicemen and women did not lose their rich history when they were re-branded ‘aviators’, similarly when Army signalmen became signallers. The police force and fire service did not become unrecognisable when they swapped out policeman and fireman in favour of police officer and firefighter. Gender-inclusive language does not diminish the requirement to highlight the differences between men and women and their different needs when appropriate. Changing language does stop the assumption that certain roles are just for men and helps shift the prevailing culture of hegemonic masculinity within the Army. There are many areas that require long-term commitment as well as significant resource to advance gender equality. Gender-inclusive language is an easy fix.17
All of the above culminates in a need for more professional opportunity for women in the Army, making servicewomen less likely to go before a promotion board in relation to equally performing servicemen. A wider societal problem, where women are required to prove their competence, whilst competence is largely assumed in men, stifles careers and erodes confidence.18 The myth of meritocracy has us believing in a system whereby you will succeed if you work hard and do your job. Research shows that this is not the case for a lot of women.19 By omitting names and gender from reporting and job applications, bias could largely be removed. This would positively affect retention as well as recruitment, which would, in-turn help the Army achieve a ‘critical mass’ of women. Critical mass theory states a large minority needs to be achieved to change culture and avoid ‘tokenism’. With this in mind, it will take a remarkable shift of image for the pattern of recruitment seen over the last decade to change to meet the government’s goal of women making up 30% of personnel recruited by 2030. In demonstrating a clear shift of focus from retention to recruitment, an error has been made.20 Statistics show that female officers are significantly less likely to remain in service in comparison to their male peers.21 If young women cannot see themselves represented across all levels and roles in the Army, they are less likely to consider it a realistic career prospect.22 Improving recruitment is important, but this comes hand in hand with increasing retention. Women are not likely to want to join an organisation where women do not want to stay.
Culture encompasses prevailing societal attitudes, where no one thing is the cause but rather an accumulation of tradition, previously accepted norms, behaviours and attitudes, as well as inaccurate, biased or out-of-date research and statistics. While society has been described as a ‘slow-moving beast’, it is important to recognise that the British Army is uniquely positioned to lead the way in shifting prevailing culture. It can become more accepting and positive towards women and the extreme talent and dedication they bring with them. As one of the remaining bastions of hegemonic masculinity in the country, where by law women were excluded from a significant portion of jobs until 2018 and which was described as “still a man’s world” in recent reports, this would not only improve the lived experience of servicewomen, but could potentially be the first step in making a more significant, societal shift in British culture.
This can be done in several ways. By tackling the root causes of unacceptable behaviours and changing policies to abolish gender norms rather than reinforcing them, its appeal to young women would increase, boosting both recruitment and talent. By removing social barriers negatively influencing perceptions and treatment of women in the workplace, women are less likely to end their military career prematurely, ensuring a retention of experience and an increase of women in the higher echelons, diversifying leadership and increasing potential of the Army’s performance on a world stage. By ensuring women are included from the beginning of procurement, the risk of injury to the workforce would be reduced, enabling women to do their job without the added burden of ill-fitting clothing and equipment designed to be safely operated by someone on average 10% bigger with a different physiology. By anonymising reporting, women are more likely to receive an equal chance of opportunity in promotions. In cutting away bias that sees men promoted above equally or more deserving women peers, the Army ensures the right talent is going to the right jobs. By changing its vocabulary, the male norm is erased, and women are no longer excluded by language used to identify specific roles and positions.
The Army has recognised the value women bring and their vital role, but there is still much more to do. Without serious, unwavering reform, women will continue to be seen as an afterthought: acceptable but less preferable, tolerated but never fully welcome.
Cover photo credit: MOD
Major Heather Warwick is a serving officer in the Corps of Royal Engineers. Her career so far has been an interesting and varied one, gaining considerable experience across a broad range of roles up to Corps level. She has a background as a Bomb Disposal Operator, Instructor and Light Role Engineer.
- Diane Allen, “Women in the Armed Forces: From Recruitment to Civilian Life,” (Oral Evidence, The Defence Committee, 2021), Q12, https://committees.parliament.uk/oralevidence/1812/html/.
- DHCSTC, “Defence Inclusivity Phase 2: The Lived Experience,” (Final Summary Report, Defence Committee, 2019), 4, https://data.parliament.uk/DepositedPapers/Files/DEP2021-0080/Lived_Experience_Summary_Report_REDACTED.pdf.
- Christine Gandal, “Military Masculinities and Gender Training: A qualitative analysis of The Nordic Centre of Gender in Military Operations,” (Bachelor Thesis, Uppsala Universitet, 2021), 10–11, https://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1561978/FULLTEXT01.pdf.
- DHCSTC, “Defence Inclusivity Phase 2: The Lived Experience,” (Final Report, Defence Human Capability Science and Technology Centre, 2020), viii, http://data.parliament.uk/DepositedPapers/Files/DEP2021-0099/Lived_Experience_Technical_Report.pdf.
- CMJ, “Women in the Armed Forces – From Recruitment to Civilian Life,” (Written Evidence, Centre for Military Justice, 2021), para 17–18, https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/22231/html/.
- ibid para 21
- ibid para 23
- ibid para 37-41
- Mike Allen et al, “Exposure to Pornography and Acceptance of Rape Myths,” 45, 1 (1995): 5 – 26.
- DHCSTC, “Defence Inclusivity Phase 2: The Lived Experience,” (Final Report, Defence Human Capability Science and Technology Centre, 2020), 8, http://data.parliament.uk/DepositedPapers/Files/DEP2021-0099/Lived_Experience_Technical_Report.pdf.
- Ofsted, “Review of Sexual Abuse in Schools and Colleges,” (Review, Ofsted, 2021), https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/review-of-sexual-abuse-in-schools-and-colleges/review-of-sexual-abuse-in-schools-and-colleges.
- Ana J Bridges et al, “Aggression and Sexual Behaviour in Best-Selling Pornography Videos: A Content Analysis Update,” 16, 10 (2010): 1065-1085.
- Kaelyn Forde, “‘Motherhood Penalty’ Starts Even Before Kids, Study Finds,” (Article, Aljazeera, 2019), https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2019/8/16/motherhood-penalty-starts-even-before-kids-study-finds.
- Sarah Atherton, “Protecting those who protect us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life,” (Second Report of Session, The Defence Committee, 2022), 4-41, https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/6959/documents/72771/default/.
- Shelley Zalis, “Men Should Take Parental Leave – Here’s Why,” (Article, Forbes, 2018), https://www.forbes.com/sites/shelleyzalis/2018/05/03/why-mandatory-parental-leave-is-good-for-business/.
- Caroline Criado Perez, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias In a World Designed for Men (United Kingdom: Penguin Random House UK, 2019).
- NATO Social Representative for Women Peace and Security, “NATO Gender-Inclusive Language Manual,” (Manual, NATO, 2020), https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pictures/images_mfu/2021/5/pdf/210514-GIL-Manual_en.pdf.
- Mary Ann Sieghart, The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men, and What We Can Do About It (United Kingdom: Penguin Random House UK, 2022) 55-60.
- Caroline Criado Perez, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias In a World Designed for Men (United Kingdom: Penguin Random House UK, 2019), 93.
- Megan Harding, “Representation of Women in the Armed Forces,” (Article, House of Commons Library, 2021), https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/representation-of-women-in-the-armed-forces/.
- Analysis Army, “Male and Female DE Officer Length of Service Percentage Chance of a New Entrant completing X Years” (Statistics, Analysis Army, 2020).
- Sarah Atherton, “Protecting those who protect us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life,” (Second Report of Session, The Defence Committee, 2022), 13-15, https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/6959/documents/72771/default/.