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

5Transition and resettlement

Reasons for leaving the Armed Forces

195.It is more common for women to leave the Armed Forces early than men, although it is unclear why.413

196.The AFCAS 2021 indicates that the top factor influencing all Service personnel’s intention to leave is the impact of Service on their family and personal life.414 This was also the most common reason why female veterans in our survey had left the Forces, affecting more than 700 female veterans. Many other contributors cited the impact of parenthood and family-related challenges on servicewomen’s decisions to leave.415 A cohort study by the King’s Centre for Military Health Research (2003–2016) found servicewomen with dependent children were more likely to leave than servicemen.416 Similarly, the MOD’s statistics suggest that, while most servicewomen return to the Forces after maternity leave,417 the long-term retention of servicewomen with young children may be a challenge: as of 1 October 2020, 42.1% of servicewomen who took maternity leave in 2014 and initially returned, have now left the service.418 The MOD accepts that servicewomen are more likely to leave due to starting a family than servicemen419 and is doing work to improve support for all personnel with family responsibilities.420

197.The other reasons for leaving the Forces given by female veterans in our survey are similar to the factors raised in AFCAS 2021 by all Service personnel.421 Female veterans in our survey commonly cited, from more to less common:422 a spouse or partner’s career; being ‘discharged on family grounds’ (for example, the pregnancy ban); service morale; ‘my morale’; and opportunities outside the service and promotion prospects.423 However, servicewomen, veterans and other witnesses also told us some servicewomen leave as a consequence of feeling “worn down” by exclusive aspects of the culture or, in more extreme cases, the bullying, harassment and discrimination they experienced and the way in which it was handled.424 Some contributors suggested women are also more likely to be medically discharged due to physical injury and muscular-skeletal problems.425

198.Research on Female Service Leaver suggests the reasons for leaving may differ by an individual’s age, rank, Service and other factors.426 For instance, female veterans in Other Ranks (tri-service) were more likely to refer to bullying and harassment as a reason for leaving than Officers. Among female cohorts, Royal Navy personnel were more likely to leave as a result of work-life balance and deployments and RAF personnel due to management issues. As discussed above, the Naval Families Federation told us the Harmony guidelines—which set out the duration of tours of duty—were leading Naval personnel to leave early, because they require longer deployments in the Navy than other Services.427

199.According to the MOD’s HR systems, the reasons for servicewomen leaving “closely mirror” those of servicemen and include lack of job satisfaction; desire to settle/live in a single area; opportunities outside Service; seeking fresh challenges and dissatisfaction with overall career/promotion.428

The situation of female veterans

200.Transitioning to civilian life can be difficult for all veterans, due to the “huge changes in their identity and sense of purpose”.429 The MOD, charities and research groups highlighted the need for further research into the needs and situation of female veterans in the UK.430 During the last two years, more research has been published on the employment situation431 and health and well-being needs of female veterans.432 Nonetheless, Salute Her, the female veterans’ service, stated that ‘Five Eyes’ and European partners are “years ahead of the UK” in terms of the level of academic research into female veterans.433 The Royal British Legion said it is especially important to understand better the situation of female Commonwealth veterans, female veterans in resettlement and female veterans who try to get compensation.434 The MOD paid for some questions for ex-service personnel in the ONS Annual Population Survey from 2014 to 2017, but noted that due to the small sample size of female veterans, there is uncertainty about these results.435

201.The evidence base is improving, but large-scale quantitative research is still needed on the situation and needs of female veterans, as is further academic research. The MOD should commission large-scale research in 2022 on the situation of all veterans, with dedicated analysis of differences by sex and gender, ethnicity, housing situation and other characteristics. This can use the 2021 Census, the consultation of the Department of Health and Social Care on the Women’s Health Strategy and other sources.

202.2,469 female veterans participated in our survey: one of the largest research exercises involving the UK’s female veterans that we know of. A large proportion (1,041, ~42%) reported positive experiences of transitioning to civilian life. However, a significant share (544, ~22%) also had bad or very bad experiences.436 Participants reported difficulties since leaving the military—most commonly, physical or mental health issues (each cited by more than 650 veterans: around one in four respondents). They also indicated relationship problems, debt, unemployment, housing, pensions and benefits and others.437

203.The Ministry of Defence is ambivalent as to whether female veterans face unique or additional challenges when transitioning. It does not “consider that servicewomen face specific or additional challenges during their transition” to civilian life, but it acknowledges some female veterans face challenges in transitioning “including those particular to women veterans”.438

204.The Salute Her female veterans’ service, the Cobseo Female Veterans Cluster439 and female veterans themselves reported that female veterans often feel invisible and that their service was not recognised, with the former calling them “highly visible when serving - invisible afterwards”. It noted that female veterans who are minority ethnic or LGBTQ+ may experience this more acutely.440 Maria Lyle from the RAF Families Federation concurred with the idea of visibility, saying there is “female veterans are not perceived at all”.441

205.Witnesses underlined that challenges facing female veterans may reflect the legacy of their Service. As discussed above, the Salute Her veterans’ service and Centre for Military Justice argued that in-service experiences of sexual assault and rape can result in lasting trauma.442 Cobseo cited the impact of bans on pregnancy and homosexuality, saying that there are “increased suicide rates found in older women veterans” who experienced these.443 The media has reported that historic bans negatively affected some female veterans’ pensions entitlements.444 The Mesothelioma UK Research Centre said the effects of occupational hazards (such as asbestos exposure) are under-appreciated in female veterans.445 Poorly fitting uniform and equipment may also affect women’s health outcomes.446


206.The Forces in Mind Trust provided evidence of higher levels of economic inactivity amongst women veterans than men.447 The Royal British Legion also pointed out:

UK female veterans are less likely to be employed (76%) than male service leavers (87%) and, more likely to be economically inactive (18%) compared with males (7%). 2019 research found that almost a quarter (22%) of female Service leavers surveyed were not employed, but the majority (68%) stated that they would like to be in work.448

Cobseo said that, despite lower employment amongst female veterans, they are 25% less likely to claim unemployment benefits than male veterans and that research suggests that “resettlement packages are heavily focused on male-dominated occupations and are not sufficiently tailored to meet women’s needs”.449 But the MOD said that its analysis of ONS population data found that “women veterans of working age were no more likely to be unemployed compared to male veterans”.450 However, the MOD admitted that there is some uncertainty around these results, due to the small sample size of female veterans.451 Lieutenant General James Swift emphasised that female veterans have higher rates of economic inactivity than unemployment and argued that female veterans are better represented in professional occupations and associate professional and technical qualifications than their male peers.452

207.In our survey, 1,710 female veterans (~69% of veteran respondents) felt their skills and experience from the Armed Forces were not understood by civilian employers. One in five said it took them 9 months or longer to find employment after leaving the Forces.453 Cobseo and the Royal British Legion both stated that women veterans are often less confident in their skills and more likely to underestimate their suitability for civilian roles.454 Female veterans can also be affected by wider gender gaps in the labour market.455

208.The Naval Families Federation stated that, in transitioning to civilian life, women with young children may have more difficulty in taking advantage of resettlement opportunities, especially if their partners are away serving.456 Dr Bergman, a female veteran who runs the Scottish Veterans Health Research Group, recommended access to a ‘delayed’ support package for female service leavers in this situation, so that they can return to work when appropriate (either in the Regular or Reserve force).457


209.There is some evidence of poor health outcomes among female veterans. Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) and the Cobseo Female Veterans Cluster identified a greater risk of certain physical and mental health conditions among female veterans, relative to female civilians (although not necessarily relative to male veterans).458 They said female veterans “self-report higher mental health symptoms than male veterans, but this is not reflected in mental health diagnoses”.459 The Women’s Royal Army Corp Association collaborated with Combat Stress to survey those female veterans it supports. Its initial results suggested higher levels of PTSD, anxiety and depression among the WRAC cohort, relative to the general veteran cohort.460

210.Male and female veterans face common challenges in transitioning, but there are differences, which veterans’ services should take into account. We are also concerned that many ex-military women feel their Service is not recognised. Female veterans’ situation is directly affected by the legacy of their Service. The MOD and Forces should do more to acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of female veterans, including servicewomen who go on to work in the defence industry. Specific initiatives could be public memorials and blue plaques, support for female veterans’ networks and initiatives in Women’s History Month.

Available services and whether these meet female veterans’ needs

211.In our survey, 1,850 female veterans (~75% of the 2,469 veteran respondents) said MoD was not helpful in their transition and 1,305 (~53%) said that their needs are not being met by veteran services.

212.The MOD says that it applies its policies and services in an “equitable and consistent” way for all veterans.461 These policies/services include:

213.Academics at the University of Derby drew on their research with eight women military service leavers to suggest that existing support for veterans is both limited and male-focused.463 The Salute Her service and the Military War Security Research Group made a similar case.464 Many female veterans in our survey reported veteran support focused on the needs of men and could be off-putting. One veteran, commenting on attending a British Legion event, said she was the only female veteran and they “didn’t quite know what to make of me”. Dr Bergman gave data from Veterans First Point centres in Scotland in 2018, which showed that 6% of their clients were female, despite women forming around 10% of the Regular Forces.465

214.The Forces in Mind Trust believes that there are “strong indications” that female veterans’ needs are not being met by available services, due to, for example, less engagement with the MOD’s Career Transition Partnership and other services.466 Research by the Salute Her service suggested that female veterans can find the courses offered by the CTP too focused on male-dominated sectors (such as construction or security).467 The MOD believes further research is needed to know if existing services meet women veterans’ needs.468


215.Although it is “difficult to know” the number of female veterans accessing statutory or voluntary health or mental health provision, the Forces in Mind Trust cited the Call to Mind report,469 which found few female veterans appeared to access veterans’ services and some employees at these services “had never seen a female veteran in their service”.470 Data from the Department of Health and Social Care appear to show women veterans are more likely to use NHS mental health services for the wider population than those specifically for veterans. Although around 11% of veterans are estimated to be female, only around 5% of those referred to the CTS and Transition, Intervention and Liaison Service (TILS) mental health services for veterans are female. Conversely, women make up 18.7% of those veterans referred to the wider population service, Improving Access to the Psychological Services (IAPT).471

216.The Forces in Mind Trust thought it could “make a real difference” if statutory and voluntary health providers considered making their service more user-friendly for women and which services would be “most appropriate” to meet female veterans’ needs. It wanted local and national needs assessments to consider female veterans as an under-represented group.472

217.We received some evidence suggesting challenges with the administration of the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme. In particular, some contributors recommended greater consideration of whether the Scheme provides suitable compensation for female injury.473

Gender-specific provision and military sexual trauma (MST)

218.Both Paula Edwards, who leads the Salute Her service, and Dr Bergman, who runs the Scottish Veterans Health Research group, said there are few female-specific veterans’ services in the UK, compared to the United States, where there are many.474 Dr Bergman noted that many women prefer gender-specific services “especially if they have been the victim of sexual or domestic abuse or harassment”.475 The Salute Her service offers a Military Sexual Trauma support service for female veterans, but warned that there are not enough specialist support services like this, meaning “many are on a pathway of despair with multiple complex unmet needs”, including poor mental health and physical health, broken relationships, unemployment and limited prospects.476 The Military War Security Research Group at Newcastle University also identified a need for more specialised and targeted provision of support for female veterans, especially those who experienced sexual harassment or abuse in the Armed Forces.477

219.The Salute Her female veterans’ service said it would be a “game-changer” of the MOD were to recognise the specific problem of ‘military sexual trauma’ (MST), because it would support veterans to “understand what had happened to them” and “be able to seek help”.478 The service’s more detailed research479 explained that MST can be defined as sexual assault or sexual harassment experienced during military service, regardless of location, gender of victim, or the relationship to the perpetrator. It explained that MST can vary from non-military sexual assault, bringing about more severe health impacts. For example, personnel cannot always leave their duty stations freely and may come into frequent contact with their perpetrator. The nature of military roles also means that personnel may not always have time to seek help and may be facing other stress.480

220.The MOD told us it has not formally decided to use the term of military sexual trauma. It noted that the Service Police do not recognise this term and use the terminology in the Sexual Offences Act in 2003.481 The term military sexual trauma is accepted in other countries, including the United States and Canada.482 Cobseo’s recent research review identified a stronger evidence base on military sexual trauma in the United States.483


221.Regarding support for servicewomen who leave following maternity leave, the MOD suggested that women on maternity leave have “early, or delayed, access to resettlement as appropriate to an individual’s circumstances and preferences”.484 It noted the Defence Transition Services assess individual needs using a “holistic framework” and offer support for 2 years. It also stated CTP offers an individualised “programme of activity” which is available for up to 2 years post-discharge.485 However, the MOD has also told us that servicewomen may “inadvertently” face challenges with transition if they take Ordinary Maternity Leave (OML) then decide or need to leave afterwards. This may lead to them being unable to prepare for resettlement early enough, or to miss out on available resettlement entitlements. The MOD said that they should be “encouraged to start their transition to civilian life prior to going on OML” if they plan to leave after OML.486

222.We fully support the Government’s efforts to improve support for all veterans, but there remain gaps in specialised services. The Government must ensure available services are more accessible to women, including, where necessary, via female-specific services. It is also necessary to acknowledge the legacy of veterans’ Service in affecting their situation in later life.

223.Both transition services and veterans’ services should ensure that both women and men can benefit fully from them, as the female veteran population will only grow. This may require greater female representation in the day-to-day running of the services, gender-specific points of access and better adaptation to the differing health, employment and other challenges of female veterans. This recommendation applies to both statutory services and those in the voluntary sector.

224.Building on the work of the ‘Salute Her’ service, the Ministry of Defence should recognise ‘military sexual trauma’ and fund greater provision of female-specific, specialist support services for veterans with in-service experiences of sexual harassment, assault and rape.

225.There should be a recognition of gender-specific needs and services in the Armed Forces Covenant. We endorse the recommendation (not yet accepted) of the 2021 Armed Forces Bill Committee to add a metric to the Annual Report on the Armed Forces Covenant on the experiences of veterans by sex or gender and by other protected characteristics. This should be part of the reporting on every chapter.

413 RAF Families Federation (WAF0038)

414 Ministry of Defence, Armed forces continuous attitude survey: 2021 (20 May 2021), p 13

415 For example, Dr Beverly Bergman (WAF0016); James Swift, Q129; King’s Centre for Military Health Research (WAF0049); ‘Living in our Shoes’ review team (WAF0041)

416 Summarised in King’s Centre for Military Health Research (WAF0049)

417 There are very high rates of servicewomen returning to work after maternity leave (98.5% of those who went on maternity leave in 2019). Ministry of Defence, UK armed forces biannual diversity statistics: 1 October 2020 (17 December 2020).

418 Ministry of Defence, UK armed forces biannual diversity statistics: 1 October 2020 (17 December 2020). It is not possible to know whether having young children was the main factor influencing their exit.

419 Ministry of Defence (WAF0057) para 29

420 James Swift, Q129

421 It is not possible to do a direct comparison of AFCAS results with those of our survey. The survey of our inquiry is not a representative sample. There are also limits to its direct comparability with the AFCAS, because our survey asks veterans retrospectively about their reasons for leaving (as opposed to AFCAS, which asks about factors influencing serving personnel who are considering leaving).

422 Between 226 (9%) and 365 (15%) respondents selected each of these options (2,469 veteran respondents in total).

423 In addition, limited promotion prospects and poor management were mentioned by, for example, Military War Security Research Group, Newcastle University (WAF0036); Ms Claire Booker (Formerly RAF) (WAF0055); Christina Dodds and Dr Matthew Kiernan (WAF0065) para 5.11.

424 Military War Security Research Group, Newcastle University (WAF0036); Christina Dodds and Dr Matthew Kiernan (WAF0065) para 5.11; Forces in Mind Trust (WAF0039); Salute Her, Forward Assist (WAF0012); Diane Allen (WAF0051); survey of our inquiry.

425 Forces in Mind Trust (WAF0039); Christina Dodds and Dr Matthew Kiernan (WAF0065)

426 Forces in Mind Trust (WAF0039). Also cites: Cranfield School of Management, Forces in Mind Trust and Institute of Employment Studies, Female Service Leavers and Employment (September 2019).

427 Naval Families Federation (WAF0040); Anna Wright, Q47

428 Ministry of Defence (WAF0057) para 30

429 Dr Karin Spenser, Dr Carrie Childs, and Dr Joanna Adhikari (WAF0042)

430 For example, Salute Her, Forward Assist (WAF0012), Ministry of Defence (WAF0057) paras 48, 49; Anglia Ruskin University and the Cobseo Female Veterans Cluster (WAF0020); Military War Security Research Group, Newcastle University (WAF0036); Forces in Mind Trust (WAF0039)

431 Cranfield School of Management, Forces in Mind Trust and Institute of Employment Studies, Female Service Leavers and Employment (September 2019)

432 The Cobseo Female Veterans Cluster and ARU undertook an NHS-funded review of research into the health and well-being of female veterans. This is summarised in Anglia Ruskin University and the Cobseo Female Veterans Cluster (WAF0020) and available in full here: Cobseo and Anglia Ruskin University, We Also Served: The Health and Well-being of Female Veterans in the UK (May 2021).

433 Salute Her, Forward Assist (WAF0012)

434 Royal British Legion (WAF0064)

435 Ministry of Defence (WAF0057) para 51

436 A further 884 had neutral experiences or did not answer.

437 Each cited by between 262 (11%) and 390 (16%) veteran respondents.

438 Ministry of Defence (WAF0057) paras 43, 48

439 Salute Her, Forward Assist (WAF0012); Anglia Ruskin University and the Cobseo Female Veterans Cluster (WAF0020).

440 Salute Her, Forward Assist (WAF0012)

441 Maria Lyle Q51

442 Salute Her, Forward Assist (WAF0012). The Centre for Military Justice said it had received “many examples” from female veterans of the “life-long impacts of their experiences of sexual assault”. Centre for Military Justice (WAF0056)

443 Anglia Ruskin University and the Cobseo Female Veterans Cluster (WAF0020)

445 The Mesothelioma UK Research Centre – Sheffield (WAF0013)

446 Anglia Ruskin University and the Cobseo Female Veterans Cluster (WAF0020)

447 Cranfield School of Management, Forces in Mind Trust and Institute of Employment Studies, Female Service Leavers and Employment (September 2019), p 5

448 Royal British Legion (WAF0064) para 2.4.1

449 Anglia Ruskin University and the Cobseo Female Veterans Cluster (WAF0020)

450 Ministry of Defence (WAF0057) para 53

451 Ministry of Defence (WAF0057) para 51

452 James Swift, Q181. Both individuals who are economically inactive and those who are unemployed are not officially working. The main difference is that unemployed people have actively looked for work in the immediate past, whereas economically inactive people have not. Fuller information at ONS, A guide to labour market statistics (June 2020)

453 493 (~20%) veteran respondents stated this, of a total of 2,469 who did the survey.

454 Anglia Ruskin University and the Cobseo Female Veterans Cluster (WAF0020); Royal British Legion (WAF0064) para 2.4.1

455 Forces in Mind Trust (WAF0039) discusses a ‘double whammy’ of being female and a service leaver.

456 Naval Families Federation (WAF0040)

457 Dr Beverly Bergman (WAF0016) para 3(b)

458 Anglia Ruskin University and the Cobseo Female Veterans Cluster (WAF0020)

459 Anglia Ruskin University and the Cobseo Female Veterans Cluster (WAF0020)

460 Women’s Royal Army Corps Association (WAF0019)

461 Ministry of Defence (WAF0057) para 43

462 Ministry of Defence (WAF0057) para 43

463 Dr Karin Spenser, Dr Carrie Childs, and Dr Joanna Adhikari (WAF0042)

464 Military War Security Research Group, Newcastle University (WAF0036); Paula Edwards, Q39

465 Dr Beverly Bergman (WAF0016) para 5(b)

466 Forces in Mind Trust (WAF0039); see also Maria Lyle, Q67

467 Salute Her, Forward Assist, No Man’s Land (2019). Based on interviews with 100 female veterans.

468 Ministry of Defence (WAF0057) para 55

469 Forces in Mind Trust, Call to Mind: United Kingdom (June 2017)

470 Forces in Mind Trust (WAF0039)

471 Ministry of Defence (WAF0057) para 56

472 Forces in Mind Trust (WAF0039)

473 Bolt Burdon Kemp (WAF0043); Diane Allen (WAF0051); Royal British Legion (WAF0064)

474 Paula Edwards, Q40; Dr Beverly Bergman (WAF0016) para 7(a)

475 Dr Beverly Bergman (WAF0016) Executive Summary

476 Salute Her, Forward Assist (WAF0012)

477 Military War Security Research Group (WAF0036)

478 Paula Edwards, Q9

479 Salute Her, Forward Assist, No Man’s Land (2019), para 2.5

480 Salute Her, Forward Assist, No Man’s Land (2019), p 15

481 Ministry of Defence (WAF0079)

482 Paula Edwards, Qq 9, 40; Veterans Affairs Canada, Military Sexual Trauma (n.d.)

483 Anglia Ruskin University and the Cobseo Female Veterans Cluster (WAF0020)

484 Ministry of Defence (WAF0079)

485 Ministry of Defence (WAF0079)

486 Ministry of Defence (WAF0057) para 44

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