‘Something Needed to be Done’.
Diane Allen, OBE, retired Lieutenant-Colonel and author, discusses the potential implications of the recently released House of Commons Defence Committee report on Women in the Armed Forces.
I was only mildly confident that when I published my memoir, Forewarned: Tales of a Woman at War . . . With the Military System, in June 2020, that it would get a reaction. I had, since 2018, been speaking online with soldiers and officers from the Royal Air Force, Navy and Army who shared their often grim military experiences in closed chatrooms and talked about the wider #MeToo campaign. Many agreed that ‘something needed to be done’. I had drafted my book a year earlier, to help me process my own military journey (great times and awful ones), but I published it for a different reason. After reading those stories, I wanted to use it as a call to arms, to encourage all military women to speak up. To finally have a voice.
Forewarned which describes tales of cock-ups, conspiracies and misogyny in the military, also included my experiences of the changing roles for women that I witnessed since joining as a teenager in the 1980s, and leaving in 2017. While I wrote about great opportunities and lifelong friendships, I faced its underlying dark problems; a small but powerful group of toxic leaders concerned only with their careers and a brutally vindictive complaint system that allowed damaging behaviours to go unpunished. These poor leaders were ‘brushing under the carpet’ issues that, in the civilian world, would be considered criminal or contrary to employment law. This failure of military leadership by a powerful few angered me most. Women are a minority groups in the military – making up about 8-9 per cent but decreasing sharply to around 3 per cent in the more senior roles. They were being led by a patriarchy, and at the top, it was toxic.
The call to arms worked and within hours of Sky News breaking the #militarymetoo campaign, in May 2020 came a steady ping of emails. Fifty in the first hour, then 100, all from women telling me their stories of rape, sexual assault, hitting glass ceilings, and the grind of daily, casual, endemic sexism. With more than 150 stories by the end of the first week, I had confirmation that the military still had a problem. Military charities rang me and offered support as well their research.
It was evident from all sources that the military leadership still treasures its ‘old & bold’ attitudes and tolerates ‘dinosaur views’ from too many – and by leaders ignoring it, the dinosaurs are emboldened to keep open a dripping tap of endemic, low-grade sexism. The misogyny from this toxic pairing (senior leaders and dinosaurs) was less overt and less prevalent but really no different to women’s experience of the 80s. Equally appalling were its weak systems for investigating complaints, delivered by heavy-handed military lawyers and often incompetent service police that – this second toxic pairing is allowing a small group of sexual predators to thrive. Tools for the good military leaders so they can challenge poor behaviours do not exist and women and other military minorities (LGBT+ and ethnically diverse communities) are still suffering. The military had announced in 2018 that these minority groups were to be given greater opportunities but while such new opportunities exist on paper, 198 voices were now telling me that inclusion really remained elusive. Even the service complaints ombudsman for the Armed Forces, set up in 2015 to replace a previously failed system, admitted that 90 per cent of those serving avoided its system because it didn’t offer justice. The outcome? Too many serving women (and men) are forced to keep quiet about serious crimes and misconduct or face losing their careers. And the weak leaders coerce victims to withdraw complaints, to please the senior leadership and to avoid damaging their own promotion prospects.
Now that I had resigned from the military, these collective stories had given me a new cause but I knew that I couldn’t single-handedly bring about the necessary change. So, in the summer of 2020, I reached out to my network, who connected me to Sarah Atherton MP: a former soldier who was also a social worker, she instantly got it. Sarah and her team set up a House of Commons Defence select committee and through great effort, managed to lift the gagging order preventing serving women from taking part. The inquiry ran from December 2020 to March 2021.
Although the MoD barely advertised it, the sisterhood got the word around. It was the largest response to any defence inquiry with 4106 survey respondents, 75 pieces of written evidence, focus groups, and oral evidence sessions. That equates to 9 per cent of the current serving population, as well as many veterans. Over 62 per cent reported they had experienced bullying and harassment; all were suggestive of a sexual nature. The service complaints ombudsman spoke out, lawyers spoke and so did charities. And all corroborated what the previous six official reports published since 1995, had been saying about the need for reform. They all agreed that the military has a problem with managing inappropriate behaviours and a poor justice record, and that it doesn’t deliver on recommendations to correct the issues. Since the Deepcut scandal involving the deaths of four soldiers at Princess Royal Barracks, Surrey, between 1995 and 2002, little progress has been made in handling the toxic behaviours that lurk in the dark corners of defence.
The report is out today. Sarah has been fighting since early summer to have it released and I am delighted that the Committee’s findings reflect that they have listened hard to what women are telling them. The report confirms what my initial findings showed – opportunities are there, but much work still needs to be done.
Among the most crucial recommendations that must now be implemented are that the MoD:
*create a specialised Defence Authority to handle Bullying Harassment and Discrimination complaints and better resource the Service Complaints Ombudsman while making their decisions binding.
*reverse the recent decision to reduce the appeals period from six weeks to two.
* remove cases of rape and sexual assault from military courts and the Service Justice System, and instead hand these over to the civilian court system.
*remove the chain of command entirely from complaints of a sexual nature.
*replace ill-fitting uniform and equipment, and to give better consideration to women’s health issues.
But…will this report be the end of this? Or even the beginning of the end? In the US and shortly expected in Canada, lawmakers and parliamentarians have grasped the findings and agreed to some significant changes. Will our UK leaders do the same? So far, the Heads of defence have placed a government whip against supporting any significant amendments.
So, what can we do in the meantime? Well, we can monitor the implementation of these recommendations – and we can ensure that women veterans and those serving in the military have a voice. We can create a living database of stories of the women who serve(d), an archive of research material, held with appropriate ethical and GDPR compliance and academically managed- to monitor progress. That is why I am delighted to be working alongside creative writing scholar and historian Julie Wheelwright, and academic Joanna Bourke of the Wellcome Trust-funded SHaME project to explore a collaboration aimed at creating a forum where survivors can tell their stories, as well as drawing public attention to the problem and addressing solutions.
The year since launching the #miltitaryme too has been intense – long hours answering emails, connecting those who have suffered through military service with charities and those who have offered help to business opportunities. And, of course, working with parliament to get this report published.
Seeing this report has made it worth it. But only change in the way the military treat a percentage of its women, though implementation of these recommendations will be true recognition of the courage of all the women who have spoken today.