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

Conclusions and recommendations

Joining the forces - recruitment and representation

1.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. (Paragraph 24)

2.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. (Paragraph 25)

3.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). (Paragraph 26)

Thriving and progressing in the Forces

4.Within the military culture of the Armed Forces and the MOD, it is still a man’s world. Although many servicewomen are able to cope with this, we do not think they should have to. If the MOD is serious about making the Forces more representative of UK society, it needs to be proactive in making more space for under-represented groups, including servicewomen, and reforming the prevailing culture. The investment that it made to its Diversity and Inclusion team may help, although it is too soon to assess whether this is having the desired effects. (Paragraph 34)

5.There is too much bullying, harassment and discrimination – including criminal behaviours like sexual assault and rape – affecting Service personnel (both male and female), and the MOD’s own statistics leave no room for doubt that female Service personnel suffer disproportionately. We were alarmed and appalled that the Army’s Sexual Harassment survey of 2018 found that 21% of servicewomen had either experienced or witnessed sexual harassment at work in the previous 12 months. Such a figure should have raised major concerns in the Army but appears not to have done so. The stories that we heard are truly shocking and they gravely concern us. They are also disappointing given the MOD’s commitment to ending unacceptable behaviours and the rollout of initiatives like bystander training (see paragraph 55). In particular, we are disturbed by repeated examples of senior ranks failing those they command, by not responding appropriately or even engaging in these behaviours themselves. Some of the language we heard from senior leaders also concerned us, as it appeared to imply servicewomen wanting to progress need to learn to put up with these behaviours. Let us be clear: this behaviour is harming the health, careers and operational effectiveness of our Service personnel and has no place in the military. It also damages the reputation of all Service personnel, the majority of whom conduct themselves with integrity and professionalism. The Forces and the MOD must continue to root out these behaviours and must respond better when they occur. We make specific recommendations on this in both chapters 3 and 4 of this report. (Paragraph 51)

6.The work set in motion to reduce unacceptable behaviours by the Wigston Review shows that the MOD acknowledges the problem of unacceptable behaviour. This work is positive. However, progress is slow, and frequently there is a gap between the raft of policy documents in place and actual practice on the ground. We are not yet seeing the significant progress we need. (Paragraph 62)

7.We do not underestimate the extraordinary demands and pressures facing military leaders. They operate in a unique environment; training in the Forces is often for combat and is intended to create a fighting force that is able to kill. Nonetheless, this does not excuse unacceptable behaviour. Given the disturbing examples we heard of some leaders failing those under their command, we are concerned that Leaders’ courses are not always well-attended, have been disrupted by the pandemic and do not have a clear process for assessing impact. Command courses already cover behaviours, ethics, culture and inclusion, but this existing training does not seem always to be working. Training for leaders must be mandatory, with key performance indicators to assess its impact. (Paragraph 63)

8.Adapt performance assessment systems to give greater reward to ‘downwardly-looking’ leaders and to prevent the progression of individuals who are found to have engaged in unacceptable behaviours or to have responded inappropriately. (Paragraph 64)

9.We support the MOD’s efforts to improve the availability of data on sexual harassment specifically, including via AFCAS and an in-depth survey. We note that the tri-service sexual harassment survey will not take place until 2023: two years later than recommended by the Wigston Review. The 2023 Sexual Harassment Survey must proceed without disruption. Henceforth, the MOD should commit to holding in-depth surveys of this kind every year, to get a handle on whether this specific form of unacceptable behaviour is reducing and whether its initiatives are having the desired effect. It is necessary to involve independent experts in the design of these surveys to reduce the risk of under-counting. The surveys should be designed so as to capture the specific problem of sexual harassment affecting minors (under-18s). (Paragraph 65)

10.We have general concerns about how well the MOD and Single Services can measure the reach and impact of new initiatives like the anti-bullying helpline and bystander training. The MoD and the Services must review, on an ongoing basis, the reach, awareness among personnel, and effectiveness of new initiatives to prevent and respond to unacceptable behaviours. These include the anti-bullying helpline and all forms of training being rolled out. In addition to BHD prevalence (AFCAS/RESCAS) and the sexual harassment surveys, there should be initiative-specific data and indicators to measure whether these are working. For example, questions could be added to the AFCAS and RESCAS on whether Service personnel have heard of the initiatives, on whether behaviours have changed a result, and their overall satisfaction with each of them. (Paragraph 66)

11.The MOD must demonstrate that cultural change is a priority by publishing at least every other year an in-depth review of implementation of the Wigston Review recommendations. As the first progress review was published in late 2020, the next review should be released no later than December 2022. For example, we do not believe enough progress has been made yet on Recommendation 2.9. (Paragraph 67)

12.We support the MOD’s recent steps to provide more appropriate uniform and equipment to female Service personnel, including re-designing air crew equipment and trialling better-fitting body armour. However, women have been able to serve in all parts of the military since late 2018, and at least 7 out of 10 roles in each Service have been open for years longer (see paragraph 8). We find it extraordinary that uniforms and equipment are still a problem across all Services. Thousands of female Service personnel, already facing the dangers of military duty, are at greater risk of harm due to basic failures in their uniform and equipment, which can have consequences for their combat effectiveness and health. Fixing these problems is one of the simplest ways that the Forces can demonstrate they value servicewomen. (Paragraph 74)

13.The Department must continue as a priority to trial and fully roll out safer, more appropriate uniform and equipment for female Service personnel, with a view to reaching all servicewomen (in the Regulars and Reserves) by the end of 2022. The Services should confirm that all the items mentioned in our evidence will be covered by the changes underway. The MOD should also provide a timeline for this change in the response to our report. The trials and roll-out should involve continued consultation with female personnel and relevant Service networks. As far as possible, this procurement should use British manufacturers. (Paragraph 75)

14.In joint bases, the variations in single service regulations over dress may cause confusion and difficulty. Consider harmonising standards over dress and etiquette when multiple services are co-located, to avoid perceptions of unfairness. (Paragraph 76)

15.We thank the MoD for its decision to offer back-up sanitary products to female Service personnel in austere environments, on exercise and in Phase 1 training establishments, although we wonder what part media coverage of our evidence session played in the timing of the announcement. Given the ‘taboo’ around menstruation, some servicewomen, particularly in junior ranks, may be too embarrassed to request the supplies from a (often male) senior officer. We encourage the MOD to continue its work with the chain of command, Women’s Networks and the supply chain to provide sanitary products in all austere environments, exercises and training establishments, taking clear steps to ensure these are genuinely accessible to all who need them. There should be an alternative point of contact to access these, outside of the chain of command. Awareness of the effect of menstruation on servicewomen should be part of leadership training. (Paragraph 81)

16.We support the work being undertaken to give better consideration of female-specific health needs within Defence health policies, recognising that the evidence base is still growing in some areas. We especially applaud the work of the RAF and Royal Navy to provide more specialised support on ante-natal and post-natal fitness. The MOD should continue this positive work, particularly when it comes to menopause (which may be less well catered to), and report to us annually on actions taken. The MOD should also consider the accessibility and training of military GPs, to ensure that female Service personnel can access doctors with the right knowledge and understanding to deal with a range of female health needs, regardless of the base location. This will support all Service personnel to access appropriate healthcare. (Paragraph 87)

17.The Ministry of Defence must put in place a clear Tri-Service policy on foreign deployment for personnel with pre-school aged children, to give serving parents (male and female) more say over their career paths when they have young children and provide them with flexible working options, whilst not disadvantaging their prospects for promotion. There should be an emphasis on easing the situation of dual-serving couples. (Paragraph 92)

18.The Ministry of Defence should roll out the wraparound childcare scheme to all bases and to all Services by the end of 2022, following the pilots. In the roll-out, the MOD should work closely with the Department for Education and equivalent in the Devolved Nations, and local authorities. (Paragraph 96)

19.The Ministry of Defence should undertake a targeted and measurable initiative to improve the uptake and use of Flexible Service, including by men, and report its progress to us by the end of 2022. (Paragraph 99)

20.The costs and benefits of home working should be assessed, with a view to introducing home working options wherever possible. (Paragraph 100)

21.The Ministry of Defence should carry out the promised equality analysis of longer or more frequent deployments, as set out in the Integrated Review, and publish these by March 2022, a year after publication of the Review. This should consider opportunities as well as risks. (Paragraph 103)

22.Juggling Service life and family life can be hard for all Service personnel, but especially for military women, who are more often the main care-giver for children and part of a dual-serving couple. We welcome improvements to the ‘offer’ for Service families in recent years and the indications that flexibility of Service may be improving. However, we note that the decision over whether to accommodate requests for flexible working sits with the chain of command; key aspects of a serviceperson’s career pivot around this one relationship. It is a priority to enable all Service personnel to access these entitlements (when appropriate) and to normalise their use. (Paragraph 104)

23.Female Service personnel – particularly those with children – are under-represented among military leaders in the Regulars and the Reserves. The imbalance is most severe among Senior Officers (OF7/2* and above), where the MOD says it may take over 300 years to improve. We endorse the recent commitments by the Chiefs of Staff and the Gender Balance Working Group. The MOD obviously recognise there are concerns. However, we want to see progress in practice. We struggle to assess the scope, reach and impact of these from the evidence provided. We doubt the Gender Balance Working Group has the resource and status to meet its stated aims. There needs to be a plan to deliver the targets for female personnel in leadership roles. Without these, the Chiefs of Staff’s statement is in danger of lacking teeth. (Paragraph 113)

24.Using measurable Key Performance Indicators, the MOD’s new Diversity and Inclusion Directorate must oversee the Working Group, holding it to account on the speed, reach and impact of its work and the Service-specific levels of ambition. It may be necessary for staff from the Directorate directly to take over parts of its work, given that Group members perform this role on top of their day jobs. The workstreams of the Group should encompass all the areas that the Chiefs of Staff committed to. The Department should report progress to us annually. (Paragraph 114)

Responding if things go wrong

25.Two years since our predecessors’ report on the work of the Service Complaints Ombudsman, we still have concerns about the functioning of the Service Complaints System and the lack of confidence in it. Our concerns are most acute for bullying, harassment and discrimination complaints, which servicewomen and minority ethnic personnel more commonly make. We understand the importance of the chain of command in the Armed Forces, but it is not always appropriate for Commander Officers to handle these complex cases, nor are they all properly equipped to do so. In some cases, their role appears to be a direct barrier to reporting. We even heard stories of senior ranks closing ranks and brushing complaints under the carpet rather than addressing them. When things go wrong for servicewomen, they go dramatically wrong. (Paragraph 134)

26.Although the Wigston Review identified a pressing need to reform the complaints process, the MOD has not fulfilled the recommendation for a Defence Authority, to handle complex BHD complaints outside the chain of command. The new Diversity and Inclusion Directorate does not fulfil this function, due to its limited role in complaint handling. Nor are we convinced that the new standing Decision Bodies and “centralised functions” do either, because they are still in the Single Services. Due to a limited mandate, the Ombudsman does not offer an alternative reporting system in the first instance. (Paragraph 147)

27.We heard consistent evidence suggesting the chain of command is a point of failure in the complaints system. (Paragraph 148)

28.The MOD must establish a central Defence Authority, fulfilling the functions as foreseen in the Wigston Review. This should provide a reporting and investigation system, outside of the Chain of Command and outside the Single Services, for bullying, harassment and discrimination complaints. In particular, it should be comprised of specialised staff and remove the chain of command entirely from any complaint of a sexual nature (criminal and non-criminal). (Paragraph 149)

29.The MOD must make the recommendations of the Service Complaints Ombudsman binding on the Armed Forces and the MOD itself, with a timescale and action plan for implementation of changes where they are recommended. (Paragraph 150)

30.It sends entirely the wrong signal that the update to Joint Service Publication 763 (Bullying and Harassment Complaints Procedures), urgently recommended by the Wigston Review in July 2019, still does not have a clear publication date. The MOD must update the relevant Joint Service Publications (763 and 831) as a matter of urgency, and certainly by the time the Government responds to this report. (Paragraph 151)

31.We are not opposed to local, informal resolution of grievances, but there are risks, as our evidence indicates, in using these processes for complex BHD complaints. The updated Joint Service Publications on Bullying and Harassment Complaints Procedures and on Service Complaints should each clearly refer to the other, so that personnel who experience bullying, harassment or discrimination are aware that the Service Complaints process is available to them if they do not wish to use an informal process or if the informal process does not successfully resolve the issue. (Paragraph 152)

32.While we support reducing delay within the overall service complaints process, we seriously doubt that reducing the appeals time limit from 6 weeks to 2 weeks is the best way to achieve this. This is not where severe delays occur and will work against complainants. We struggle to understand why the MOD chose a step that may further reduce the already low level of confidence that Service Personnel have in the complaints system. The MOD should amend the Armed Forces Bill 2021 at the earliest opportunity, to retain the 6-week time limits for appeals against the first instance decision of the Decision Body, and for appeals to the Ombudsman. (Paragraph 153)

33.The MOD should resource Service Complaints teams better to reduce significant delays in the system. (Paragraph 154)

34.We do not believe that the problems highlighted by the Lyons Review in the handling of sexual offences in the Service Justice System have been fully resolved. While we accept there is a limited set of circumstances where it may be appropriate for the Service Justice System to be used for UK-based sexual offences (for example when there are offences both in the UK and overseas), this must require the Attorney General’s consent. There may be other compelling reasons, such as the young age and vulnerability of the victim, when it is more appropriate for the civilian justice system to hear these cases. In our view, the fact that a UK case may involve a victim and a perpetrator who are both Service personnel is not a sufficient reason for the Service Justice System to be used. (Paragraph 175)

35.The MOD must implement the recommendation of the Lyons Review, that the Court Martial jurisdiction should no longer include Rape and Sexual Assault with penetration, except when the consent of the Attorney General is given. The Government should also consider the Lyons Review recommendations to place all Domestic Violence and Child Abuse cases in the civil jurisdiction when committed in the UK. This does not prevent cases with cross-jurisdictional elements (i.e. offending both in the UK and overseas) being heard in the Service Justice System. (Paragraph 176)

36.The MOD must update their guidance so that the new Defence Authority (see paragraph 149) refers all sexual offences and domestic violence involving service personnel in the UK to the civilian police. (Paragraph 177)

37.Using the data provided by the MOD, we struggled to account for the pathway followed in the Service Justice System’s handling of sexual offences and had to follow up to receive further information. We appreciate this data was provided in a short timeframe, but it gives the impression that centralised data collection is poor. The MOD must ensure that it follows its own Sexual Assault Pathway with specialist services (such as Rape Trauma Kits, timeframe for action on collecting forensic evidence need to be adhered to, and specialist training for commanding officers) for all victims who have faced sexual assault. (Paragraph 178)

38.The MOD’s sexual offences bulletin should be expanded to include new data on the pathway followed, for example the share of allegations that resulted in a Forensic Medical Examination, the share of FMEs conducted within 24 hours of a report and the share of referrals to crisis counselling. (Paragraph 179)

39.For the limited investigations into sexual offences still conducted by the Service Police, the Government should implement urgently the recommendations within Appendix H of the Service Justice System Policing Review (Part 1), which focus on improving how the Service Police investigate Domestic Abuse and Serious Sexual Offences. (Paragraph 180)

40.When personnel experience BHD, including criminal offences, their experiences of receiving support vary too much. For instance, it is not acceptable that victims of crime have not heard of the MOD’s Victims’ Charter. We have doubts about the quality and consistency of support offered by key individuals in both the complaints and the justice system, including the chain of command, Assisting Officers, Harassment Investment Officers and Victim Liaison Officers. We also heard stories of these individuals coming under immense pressure themselves when trying to fulfil their role. We support the MOD’s commitment to improving training for commanding officers to offer the right support. (Paragraph 191)

41.The MOD’s specialist support must reach those who need it in practice. It must also advertise forms of external support to personnel, in case they do not wish to use that offered by the MOD. (Paragraph 192)

42.All individuals—chain of command, Assisting Officers, Harassment Investment Officers and Victim Liaison Officers—with a key role in handling complaints must receive structured training to allow them to complete this role and to refer personnel to appropriate support. Should the MOD accept our recommendation to create a central Defence Authority (paragraph 149), the workload of these individuals should also reduce. (Paragraph 193)

43.It is not completely clear from the evidence whether personnel are able to self-select an Assisting Officer or whether this individual is always assigned by the chain of command. Provided the officer is of appropriate seniority, we support offering an option for personnel to self-select an Assisting Officer, so that it can be an individual in whom they have greater trust. (Paragraph 194)

Transition and resettlement

44.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. (Paragraph 201)

45.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. (Paragraph 210)

46.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. (Paragraph 222)

47.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. (Paragraph 223)

48.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. (Paragraph 224)

49.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. (Paragraph 225)

Overall conclusions

50.The Armed Forces can and do provide a fulfilling career for servicewomen, with vast opportunities. But the Services are failing to help women achieve their full potential. (Paragraph 226)

51.We welcome some steps by the Services in recent years—particularly, more support for (male and female) personnel with family responsibilities and the rollout of Flexible Service to Regulars and (soon) Reservists. However, there are gaps between the many policy documents and practice on the ground. Moreover, the MOD’s actions often give the impression that it is not a priority to make the necessary cultural changes, especially to the complaints system. When things go wrong, they go dramatically wrong—making it all the more worrying that this is not being focused on. (Paragraph 227)

52.The legacy of serving affects female veterans for years to come, sometimes negatively. We want all our veterans to feel proud of their Service. Ex-military women need better recognition and support within transition and veterans’ services. (Paragraph 228)

53.Senior leadership in the Armed Forces and the MOD should be bold and unequivocal in solving these challenges, (Paragraph 229)

Published: 25 July 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement