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Women still face barriers in the UK Armed Forces - here is how to overcome them

Sarah Atherton served in the Intelligence Corps Picture: Sarah Atherton MP

5 min read

Women can serve across all roles in the Armed Forces. But to cement this progress we must tackle the remaining hurdles to truly unlock the full potential of female service personnel

From stories of women masquerading in armour to fight in the English Civil War, to the formation of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps during the First World War, to the milestone of Captain Rosie Wild being the first woman to pass the Parachute Regiment’s ‘P company’ in 2020, women have and will continue to play a key role in the UK military.

Having served in the Armed Forces and now as a member of the Defence Select Committee, the issue of female service personnel and veteran affairs is close to home. I am pleased to see that, a century after the hard-won women’s vote, females are now able to serve across all roles in the British Armed Forces.

As a nation we have come a long way, but to cement this progress we must overcome the remaining barriers to truly unlock the full potential of female service personnel in the British Forces.

A Career, Not a Stop-Gap

I can attest that a military career is not an easy route, but it offers huge potential benefits including training and education, skills development and fraternity, the likes of which are hard to come by in civilian life. Despite this, however, a recent study by the Forces in Mind Trust shows that job satisfaction, lack of career progression and family life were the key contributors to female personnel leaving the service.

Reinforcing and maintaining a structure across our Armed Forces that empowers and rewards personnel (of all genders) to strive and achieve, is essential. This will ensure that the skill sets and tacit knowledge of our personnel is developed and retained.

Balancing a Career and a Family

Since over half of service personnel have children, planning and management of family life represents a stumbling block to recruitment and retention of personnel. Although not exclusively a female issue, it is an oft-cited concern for women entering the military. Indeed, many women referenced family life and issues with childcare as reasons for leaving the services. 

The Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Act (2018) has made progress with helping family cohesion. Childcare is available to service personnel, although it is not uniform in its availability, quality or cost across the Armed Forces.

To attract and retain female (and indeed male) service personnel with families or aspirations towards family life, we need to ensure a consistent, accessible and cost effective policy across the UK and I look forward to the Ministry of Defence’s Families Strategy policy revision due this year. 

Feeling Safe and Secure

It is a basic right to feel supported and secure within the structure of the workplace, and the military is no different. Strides have been made in tackling workplace harassment in the armed forces, but one case is still one too many. 

Of the 212 victims interviewed in 2019 as part of the Service Police investigation into breaches of the Sexual Offences Act (2003), 164 were women. Given that women only comprise 11% of the service, these numbers are hugely disproportionate. Additionally, of all the complaints made involving bullying and harassment, 39% were lodged by female personnel. 

The overrepresentation of women in the complaints system has been highlighted in the Wigston Review (2019) which referenced inappropriate behaviour as being of,  “widespread concern”. 

The Service Complaints Ombudsman is currently unable to attest that the military complaints system is efficient, effective and fair and there exists a clear mismatch between the inclusive and protective values of the MoD and the realities on the ground. I believe further work is needed to ensure female personnel feel equal safety and security as members of the British Armed Forces.

Transitioning to Post-Military Life

Underlying the effective recruitment and retention of female service personnel is the need to ensure and deliver effective transition for service leavers. A key concern of all personnel, regardless of gender, is how to continue to support their careers and families, either when reaching the end of service or leaving voluntarily.

Surveys show that many employers actively hire female service leavers, citing the benefits of their experience and skills. However, they note difficulties in the ability of service leavers to ‘sell themselves’ and translate their experiences into the skills required by industry.

Female service leavers have an employment rate of 69%, significantly lower than their male veteran counterparts (81%), which, given their experience and skills, should come as a surprise.

Forty-five companies signed the MoD Women in Defence Charter in January 2020. While this is a great start, more industry-linked initiatives are required across sectors to sure up the opportunity pipeline for female service leavers. We need to provide commercial experience, networking and relevant transition preparation for a civilian career upon leaving the armed forces.

The proportion of women in the British Armed Forces has increased from 8% in 2000 to 11% in 2019. This considerable progress is hard-earned by the MoD and service personnel of all genders. However, I believe there is still more work to be done to encourage military careers as a ‘first option’, one that can be fulfilling while offering opportunity, development and security for female service personnel and their families.

Sarah Atherton is Conservative MP for Wrexham and a member of the Defence Select Committee. She served in the Intelligence Corps while a member of the British Army.

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