7.Women’s formal involvement in the UK’s Armed Forces goes back more than 100 years, including the First and Second World Wars. However, the roles open to women have evolved over time, as have the conditions under which they serve. On 8 July 2016, the then Prime Minister David Cameron announced the progressive lifting of the exemption on women serving in ground close combat roles and, since late 2018, women have been able to apply for all roles in the Armed Forces, other than the Gurkhas. There has also been an end to official barriers shortening the length of women’s Service—for instance, the bans requiring female Service personnel to resign if pregnant (dropped in 1990) and preventing (openly) gay personnel (male and female) from serving (dropped in 2000).
8.On 1 April 2021, there were 149,280 personnel in the UK Regular Forces and 37,410 personnel in the Reserves. More than 20,000 of these were servicewomen: women made up 11.0% of the UK Regular Forces (16,470 personnel) and 15.1% of the Reserves (5,650 personnel). For both the Regulars and the Reserves, female Service personnel are best represented in the Royal Air Force, where they form 15.1% and 22.6% of all personnel respectively.
Share of female personnel in the Armed Forces, April 2021
9.Although the Ministry of Defence believes the Armed Forces have “changed enormously” in the last three decades, it has committed to ensuring the Defence sector “appropriately represents” society, by gender and by other characteristics. By 2030, the MOD wishes to see “significant improvements” in the share of women among recruits and personnel in the Single Services (Regular and Reserves), describing the drive for greater diversity as “mission critical”.
10.Since 2000, the share of female Service personnel in the Regular Forces has grown overall and in most years, although at a slow rate. On 1 April 2000, female Service personnel made up 8% of the UK Regular Forces. Due to reductions in the size of the Forces in the last decade, a higher proportion of women does not always mean more female Service personnel. Over the last 20 years, the Forces appear to have become more diverse generally.
11.The Forces face general recruitment challenges for all new personnel, but contributors to our inquiry identified particular barriers to women’s recruitment. Capita, which runs the recruitment contract for the Army, noted that women within the Main Target Audience (17–24 years of age) are less open than men to considering a role in the Army (62% of men in this age range are open, compared to 41% of women). It explained that many women have a perception that the Army is a male-dominated organisation where they may find it more difficult to thrive, as well as assuming they must be ‘combat-fit’ from the first day of their application. Capita believes that media reports play a role in compounding the impression that the Army is a harder place for women to thrive. Similarly, Amy Denton, who conducted interviews with Army Officers in 2019, found that most Officers considered that civilians to have a “very inaccurate view of what it takes to be a soldier/officer”, due to inaccurate depictions in films and videogames. Officers believed that this misrepresentation has ‘over-masculinised’ the Army.
12.The Chief of Defence People, Lieutenant General James Swift, told us that, while between 20% and 25% of applications come from women, only 11.2% of those joining the Regulars are women.
13.Reflecting on why women’s representation is higher in the RAF, Maria Lyle, the Director of the RAF Families Federation, told us that the Service’s culture may reflect that it is the “youngest of the three Services” and the RAF tends to have more technologically based roles (rather than physical ones), which may be more appealing to women. Conversely, Anna Wright, CEO of the Naval Families Federation, told us the length of Naval tours of duty (compared to the Army and RAF) was “absolutely key” in explaining why more women were not in the Navy and why female (and male) personnel did not stay for longer.
14.Some contributors suggest that there is less overt hostility to female personnel serving than there once was. Small-scale interview research with Army Officers in 2019 indicated that there was “no longer a strong prevalence” of the idea that women are non-combatants. Commander Andrew Loring, who served in the Navy Regulars for more than 35 years and is now in the Full Time Reserve Service, said there had been a “huge change in attitude” since 1980, and the presence of women is
not only [seen] as wholly normal by the vast majority of naval personnel, but there is an expectation that the vast majority of formations will include a mix of male and female personnel.
However, Lieutenant-Colonel (Retired) Diane Allen told us that although “on paper” all roles are now open to all, the culture and attitudes in some parts of the military can still mean women experience a “sense of not being welcomed in”. She gave the example of initiation ceremonies designed to embarrass women: this problem can be especially acute when a servicewoman is the first into post or is in a male-dominated role, like the Infantry.
15.There are no fixed quotas to increase the representation of women or other groups in the Armed Forces. The Single Services have non-binding targets (‘levels of ambition’) for diversity and women’s representation. Additionally, in 2015, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces set the intake target that, by April 2020, women should make up at least 15.0% of all new recruits.
16.The recruitment target for women, set in 2015, was missed in April 2020; women formed 12.6% of new recruits (Regulars and Reserves) in the 12 months up to 31 March 2020. The overall percentage of female recruits has further reduced since then, due to reductions in the share of the female intake in the Army and the RAF. As of April 2021, women still make up less than 15% of all new recruits to the Armed Forces (11.8% in the 12 months before 31 March 2021). Baroness Goldie, Minister of State at the MOD, told us that, three to five years ago, progress on the female recruitment targets was “glacial”, but she did not address later failure to meet recruitment targets. The intake over time to the Regular Forces and Future Reserves is given below.
The share of women among recruits to the Regular Forces and to the Reserves, 2014–2020
17.The Single Services have pursued some specific initiatives to improve women’s recruitment:
It is worth noting that the Army’s Full Time Trained Strength will reduce from 76,000 to 72,500 by 2025, so it will recruit fewer people in future.
18.Servicewomen and female veterans gave several reasons in our survey for why they joined the Forces, including career opportunities, adventure, the opportunity to learn a new skill, duty and family tradition. Suggestions for improving the recruitment of other women included: highlighting the full scope of what the military can offer and the wide range of opportunities/trades available, as well as emphasising the high level of investment that the Armed Forces make in the education and training of personnel.
19.Christina Dodds and Dr Matthew Kiernan, both veterans and academics in Northumbria University, identified factors that influence decisions to join the military, including role models and connections to the Forces via friends and family. They called it “imperative” to include female role models in recruitment strategies, believing they would inspire new recruits and offer:
an honest and realistic source of information so that informed choices can be made. […] Modern exciting TV and internet adverts […] offer a glimpse into the lifestyle of someone in the military, but not necessarily the reality of serving
The MOD has said it appreciates the impact role models can have on more diverse recruitment, including the female intake.
20.The Forces’ fitness tests are gender-free, but differentiated depending on the role. The Chief of Defence People, Lieutenant General James Swift, told us that to overcome the higher rate of injury (including muscular-skeletal injury) among female recruits in basic training, the Forces have recruited physical training instructors who are “better informed about the physiology of the women”. He also said that the weight-carrying exercises in training have been adapted for all personnel (male and female), to avoid unnecessary muscular-skeletal injury. The timeline and extent of the changes is not clear.
21.Contributors did not agree as to whether the tests should change to take into gender directly into account. Professor Anthony King, Chair of War Studies at Warwick University, argued that male and female soldiers must continue to meet the same standards in training and exercises, to ensure that women are seen as equals. He rejected the idea that physical standards have become less important in ground close combat roles, citing heavier body armour and advanced equipment in Afghanistan and Iraq. A majority (79%) of female Service personnel and veterans who responded to our survey felt the current performance tests are appropriate for female personnel. In comments, some respondents were divided on tests and whether they should consider physiological differences and gender-specific conditions like pregnancy and the menopause. Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Diane Allen made the case to us for adapted training regimes by gender, comparing military recruits to elite athletes. Her evidence warned that training programmes designed for men had led to “greater risk of injury and reduced performance” among women.
22.In the Integrated Review, published in March 2021 the Government discussed how the roles of the Armed Forces will change in future: the Forces will be “more persistently engaged worldwide through forward deployment, training, capacity-building and education”. They will also embrace the domains of cyberspace and space and build up high-tech capabilities in other domains. Some confidential submissions suggested that more technical roles in future may offer more opportunities for women.
23.Baroness Goldie said “we are not yet where we need to be” on female representation, but thought the MOD’s current initiatives, policies and programmes would boost the presence of female Service personnel. Samantha des Forges, Director of Diversity and Inclusion at the MOD, predicted “transformational changes” in 6–12 months’ time. The MOD did not directly address the suggestion that attitudes in some parts of the Forces may be putting women off from applying. However, during Summer 2021, it plans to release details of its “strengthened policy” on “zero tolerance of initiation ceremonies”, thereby acknowledging there is an issue.
24.The UK Armed Forces have become more diverse in recent decades. We do not doubt the tremendous opportunities that serving offers. Nonetheless, barriers still affect female recruitment, including an impression that it is harder for women to thrive there. The MOD and Single Services have already taken some welcome steps, including on training. While we accept change takes time, it worries us that the female intake target of 15% was missed in 2020 and the share of women among recruits has reduced in the year since then. In our view, change remains “glacial” and the impacts of the MOD’s latest initiatives are not being felt yet. The Single Services and MOD must increase their levels of ambition. In addition, we recommend further work to improve women’s in-Service experiences (see chapters 3 and 4), including stamping out unacceptable behaviours in some parts of the Forces. We believe improving servicewomen’s experiences after joining will positively affect recruitment.
25.Recruitment strategies should adequately reflect the wide range of roles, trades and skills needed in the Forces of today and tomorrow, including those to arise from the Integrated Review. These strategies must challenge misperceptions, as well as flagging different entry routes and the wider Service ‘offer’ (such as education and training, Flexible Service and family support). Female role models from the military must be sufficiently involved in outreach for all Services, building on positive initiatives at single Service level.
26.Without compromising physical standards for ground close combat roles, the Department must ensure that fitness tests across all Services have due regard for temporary or arbitrary factors that can hinder performance, including hormonal changes linked to pregnancy and menopause and ill-fitting kit (see chapter 3).
7 Royal Air Force, (13 August 2018); Association of WRENS and Women of the Royal Naval Services, (n.d.), National Army Museum, (n.d.). Women’s informal involvement in war goes back further.
8 From the 1990s, after the end of single-sex corps, women could join most cap-badges of the Forces, other than ground close combat roles. For a brief history, see Dr Beverly Bergman () paras 2(b), 2(c) and Anglia Ruskin University and the Cobseo Female Veterans Cluster () para 2.
9 Ground close combat roles previously closed to women were the Royal Marines General Service, the Household Cavalry and Royal Armoured Corps, the Infantry and the Royal Air Force Regiment.
10 The standards that recruits must meet to join the Forces are gender-free. Ministry of Defence, (17 December 2020), p 15.
11 Ministry of Defence, (17 December 2020), p 13.
12 BBC News, (12 January 2000)
13 Excludes the Gurkhas and Other Personnel. Ministry of Defence, (27 May 2021).
14 Ministry of Defence, (10 June 2021)
15 This is also the Service where more roles have been open for longer. In 2014, women were able to apply for 78.1% of roles in the Royal Navy/Royal Marines, 70.6% in the Army and 93.7% in the RAF. Ministry of Defence, (17 December 2020), p 3.
16 Ministry of Defence () para 1
17 Strategic Goal 2 at Ministry of Defence, (October 2018), p 15.
18 The MOD also aims specifically to achieve improvements in the presence of minority ethnic and LGB personnel.
19 Ministry of Defence () para 13
20 UK Defence Personnel Statistics, Briefing House of Commons Library, June 2021, p 9
21 Christina Dodds and Dr Matthew Kiernan () para 4.1
22 For instance, on 1 April 2000, 1% of personnel identified as belonging to a non-white group; by 1 April 2021, this had risen to 9.2%. It is not possible to know the exact share of LGBT personnel (reporting sexual orientation and gender identity is not mandatory), but the end of the ban on homosexuality and the existence of LGBT staff networks strongly suggests more openly gay and trans personnel are serving today. UK Defence Personnel Statistics, Briefing House of Commons Library, June 2021, p 9; , Forces Net, 18 June 2021
23 Capita ()
24 Amy Victoria Denton () para 6(j)
25 James Swift,
26 Maria Lyle,
27 Anna Wright,
28 Amy Victoria Denton () para 2(a)
29 Andrew Loring ()
30 Diane Allen,
31 Samantha des Forges, ; James Swift, ; Ministry of Defence, (October 2018), pp 16, 23
32 Ministry of Defence, (Revised 21 June 2016), p 4
33 Ministry of Defence, (17 December 2020)
34 Ministry of Defence, (10 June 2021). Tables 7 and 23 in the accompanying Excel tables show the female intake is stronger in the Reserves (15.4%) than the UK Regular Forces (10.7%). The Forces fulfilled its target (10%) for minority ethnic personnel.
35 Baroness Goldie,
36 Capita ()
37 Capita ()
38 This was previously an “artificial block” on female recruits in the other ranks. James Swift,
39 This involves crew rotations while a ship is at sea, allowing sailors to go away for a set period of time (say, three months) then have a guaranteed period at home. Tobias Ellwood, ; Anna Wright,
40 James Swift,
41 Ministry of Defence, (March 2021), p 53
42 Christina Dodds and Dr Matthew Kiernan ()
43 Christina Dodds and Dr Matthew Kiernan () para 4.6
44 Ministry of Defence, (October 2018), p 22; Baroness Goldie,
45 James Swift,
46 James Swift,
47 Professor Anthony King ()
48 Diane Allen,
49 Diane Allen (). See also Dr Bergman () para 2(c), who describes “an ‘injury epidemic’ of musculoskeletal injuries” for women loaders in the Royal Artillery from the 1990s.
50 UK Government, (16 March 2021)
51 UK Government, (16 March 2021)
52 Baroness Goldie,
53 Samantha des Forges,
54 Ministry of Defence ()