Protecting those who protect us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life Contents


It is mission critical for defence, if we are to safeguard the security, stability and prosperity of our nation, that we recruit and retain the most able people drawn from the broadest diversity of thought, skills and background. […] We are clear that if we are to improve the diversity and inclusion of our work force we must take urgent action to access and maximise all our talent.

Letter of 24 July 2020, signed by the Chiefs of Staff1

Women have served in our Armed Forces for more than a century and can now apply for all the same roles as men. The Armed Forces can and do provide them with fulfilling careers and vast opportunities. Our bottom-up inquiry heard directly from more than 4,000 female Service personnel and female veterans, including around 9% of female personnel in the Regulars. Nearly 90% of these military women would recommend the Forces to other women.

However, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and Services are failing to help female personnel achieve their full potential. More than 3,000 servicewomen and female veterans (~84% of respondents to our survey) reported that female Service personnel face additional challenges. There are now more than 20,000 servicewomen in our Armed Forces, but, for example, the MOD says it may take decades—possibly over 300 years—to improve women’s presence among Senior Officers.

In all Services but a minority: Servicewomen in the Armed Forces (%), but, for example, the MOD says it may take decades—possibly over 300 years—to improve women’s presence among Senior Officers.

Although the Forces generally welcome servicewomen today, it gravely concerns us that bullying, harassment and discrimination (BHD)—already affecting too many Service personnel—was experienced by nearly 62% of female Service personnel and veterans who completed our survey. These behaviours include sexual assault and other criminal sexual offences. Our inquiry received truly shocking evidence from female Service personnel of bullying, sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape they experienced, some of which—even more disturbingly—involved senior officers acting as wrongdoers. The MOD’s representative statistics show that servicewomen were nearly twice as likely to experience BHD in 2020 as servicemen. In 2021, servicewomen were more than ten times as likely as servicemen to experience sexual harassment in the last 12 months.

When things go wrong, they go dramatically wrong. The systems for responding to unacceptable behaviour are failing our service personnel, both male and female. The Service Complaints Ombudsman has never judged the military’s internal complaints system, in which female Service personnel are overrepresented, as ‘efficient, effective and fair’. Nearly 40% of 993 military women told us their experiences of the complaints system were “extremely poor”. Too often, complaints are being brushed under the carpet and there is inadequate support. A lack of faith in the system contributes to 89% of both male and female personnel in the Regular Forces not making a formal complaint about BHD. In our survey, around six in 10 servicewomen and female veterans who had experienced BHD did not report it. The chain of command can be a direct barrier to reporting: a point of failure. There are also serious problems with how the Service Justice System handles criminal sexual offences—most of which (76% in 2020) involve female victims.

Other parts of the military culture of the Armed Forces show it is still a man’s world:

Female veterans are living with the legacy of their Service. While most go on to lead satisfying lives and benefit from their Service, some have life-changing trauma in consequence. Many feel their Service is not recognised. Furthermore, ex-military women do not always access male-focused transition services and veterans’ services. In our survey, three-quarters of veteran respondents said the MOD was not helpful in their transition; over half said that their needs are not being met by current veteran services. Despite notable examples (such as the Salute Her service and the WRAC Association), there are very few specialised support services for female veterans in the UK.

The way forward

We must make progress on all of these issues both for the operational effectiveness of our Armed Forces, and because our shared British values of fairness, equality and justice demand it. The MOD and Single Services have started to act, for instance, rolling out ‘Flexible Service’, childcare schemes and a new BHD helpline. These initiatives reflect an acknowledgement of the problems, but we are disappointed that progress is slow, with gaps between the many policy documents and practice on the ground. As it stands, the 2021 Armed Forces Bill may represent a missed opportunity to address critical issues. We want the MOD and the Armed Forces to go further, being bold and unequivocal, and urgently implementing all aspects of the Wigston Review. To handle unacceptable behaviours better, we recommend that the MOD and Single Services:

The MOD and Single Services should also make other changes, for example:

All initiatives must have clear metrics and data for measuring success.

Female Service personnel are capable and resilient—as all Armed Forces personnel should be—but they want better outcomes for future generations. As the Armed Forces enter a new epoch and the Integrated Review brings new opportunities, now is the time to truly recognise and treat all Service personnel as our finest asset, protecting those who protect us.

We thank all the Service personnel and veterans, including thousands of military women, who contributed to this ground-breaking inquiry: the first of its kind that we know of. We also thank the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, for his decision to provide special dispensation for Service personnel to contribute, lifting the Defence Instruction Notice that normally prohibits currently serving personnel from speaking to Parliament. Taking these voices seriously will help make Britain the best place to serve in the military and to be a veteran.

1 Ministry of Defence, Maximising talent through diversity and inclusion (24 July 2020). Signed by General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Tim Fraser, Vice Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Tony Radakin, First Sea Lord, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, Chief of the General Staff, Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston, Chief of the Air Staff General Sir Patrick Sanders, Commander of Strategic Command.

Published: 25 July 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement