Leaders must learn from the mistakes of the past to help female recruits in future
When I became the MP for Wrexham in 2019, the most striking thing for me were the similarities between Parliament and the military.
Strikingly, the camaraderie is immense, but much like the military, being an MP also takes over your life: we are “on the job” 24 hours a day. However, I also feel my 2019 intake are my battalion family, eager to fight for the cause, our constituents and to support each other.
Last Thursday (4 March), I chaired the first oral evidence session for an inquiry of the Defence Select Committee looking into the experiences faced by women in the military. For me, this is the culmination of nearly a year’s work but more importantly, for serving women and veterans, this is a huge milestone. This is the first time the female military experience, good and bad, has been given a platform on this scale. It is even more fitting, given the title of the inquiry, that the first evidence session should fall so close to International Women’s Day.
Over 4,200 women have submitted evidence to this inquiry, which itself highlights the desire for these conversations to be had. In the next few weeks Salute Her, part of the veteran’s charity Forward Assist, is hoping to become the UK’s first tri-service charity dedicated solely to the needs of women veterans. Something I am thrilled to support but in itself, illustrates the lack of attention to our military women in the past.
Despite extensive advancements being made towards equality for women, it remains the fact that women still must be the pioneers in order promote equality. Change that has a real impact on the lives of other women, rightly or wrongly, happens when women decide to put their head above the parapet and enter a man’s world.
This is the first time the female military experience, good and bad, has been given a platform on this scale
The obvious example is Margaret Thatcher, who became the first female prime minister. A divisive figure on policy, but even her greatest critics could not deny her significant status for women in politics. Female MPs have followed her to the Commons and we now have 220 female MPs versus 19 in 1979 when she smashed the glass ceiling for the women in politics.
Much like Thatcher, Susan Ridge was also a “first”. She was the first female general in the British Army. Sadly, our military is a few decades behind politics, as Susan was only promoted to this position in 2015. If progression has led to more women leading in politics, why can the same not be achieved in the military more women hold higher ranks in the military? Indeed, if more women were in positions of seniority in the Military, we might not be faced with the problems that my committee seeks to examine.
Importantly, this inquiry is apolitical. Blame cannot be levelled at one government and responsibility cannot be afforded to one political party. The problems faced by women in the military are historical. Military leaders and politicians should listen and learn the lessons of the past, to benefit the female recruits of the future. This sub-committee will allow voices to be heard and valued, and recommendations made to enhance what is already an excellent career for women. In doing so it will enhance operational effectiveness and uphold our British sense of fair play and equality.
As the only sitting female MP to have served in the regular military, it is apt that I should lead this charge, but it further fuels the notion that change only happens when pioneering women put their head above the parapet.