The challenges faced by women in the UK Armed Forces are being considered by the country’s Defence Select Committee, which has launched an inquiry examining issues from recruitment to transition. As a significant part of this inquiry, servicewomen will be invited to give testimony of their experiences during military service to MPs, for the first time.
While not the sole focus of the inquiry, media interest has centred on the platform this may provide for complaints of sexual harassment and abuse by servicewomen.
It is not the first time that sexual harassment and abuse in the UK Armed Forces has been the subject of inquiry. Following a number of high profile media scandals, and intervention by the UK Equal Opportunities Commission, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) published a report in 2006 suggesting sexualised behaviour against female service personnel was common in the armed forces.
In 2008, the commission decided that the implementation of new policies and procedures by the MOD had effectively tackled the issue. However, the publication of the MOD Report on Inappropriate Behaviours, over a decade later, suggested that inappropriate sexual behaviours remain a problem. This report, published by Air Chief Marshal Wigston in July 2019, highlighted a disproportionate over-representation of women in the service’s complaints system.
Survey data from the Army in 2018 also painted a concerning picture: in the 12 months prior to the survey, 73% of servicewomen reported inappropriate sexualised comments, 20% had experienced inappropriate sexual touching, 8% had been involved in a serious sexual assault and 3% reported being raped.
Reluctance to report
To enable servicewomen to speak to the committee, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has lifted the usual restrictions that stop service personnel from speaking to parliamentarians. However, a historical reluctance to challenge the masculine military culture raises questions as to how empowered servicewomen will feel in sharing their experiences with the committee.
Both the Wigston Report and recent surveys from the Royal Navy and the British Army highlight a significant lack of trust in the service complaints process, and fear of repercussions on their career when reporting those responsible. In addition, conviction rates for rape in military courts are up to six times lower than those of civilian courts, providing little confidence in this system for those who do report serious incidents.
It is unclear how this inquiry will safeguard servicewomen who come forward to provide evidence of sexual harassment and abuse to the committee, and whether they will feel comfortable doing so.
A change in culture?
Can this inquiry help to challenge or even shift the masculine military culture?
In 1989, the political scientist Judith Hicks Stiehm suggested that women in the military, especially in positions of agency and strength, make it much more difficult for male service personnel to objectify and sexualise women. Shifting ingrained masculinist perceptions and culture through these positive female role models is a challenge for any military. Although there have been enormous advances in the UK, according to the latest defence statistics women still only occupy 13.6% of officer positions. Furthermore, only 22 out of the 447 senior officer positions in the UK Armed Forces are occupied by women.
If the committee is able to highlight the challenges that are faced by women in the military and make recommendations for change, there will need to be recognition that this change will take time. This will, in part, be driven by the gradual appointment of women into more senior positions. If the culture remains anachronistic, the challenge will be to recruit women in the first place.