#MeToo & The Military – New Data Examines How Service Women Deal With Sexual Harassment

The British Army, the Royal Air Force and Her Majesty’s Naval Service (comprising the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines) are working towards a monumental shift in their approach to their workforce. By the end of 2018, every role in the Armed Forces opened up to women. The British Army and Her Majesty’s Naval Service will finally follow the Royal Air Force, whose ground-fighting force – and thereby its entire staff complement – became open to women in 2017.

Unfortunately, they, like many women across the UK, are forced to contend with one specific issue at a rate far above that of their male colleagues: workplace sexual harassment. In fact, according to the Armed Forces’ own records one in ten servicewomen reported being sexually assaulted in the past year. As workplace sexual harassment threatens to discourage their progress and blight their potential, servicewomen have a difficult job ahead.

A new report released by Bolt Burden Kemp points to some of the history-making women within the armed forces, while also examining how rampant sexual harassment and abuse can play a role in hindering progress. As the total percentage of women in the armed forces reaches just over 10%, it’s clear there is still a long way to go in terms of equality, which makes the issue of tackling sexual harassment and sexual abuse even more pertinent. The most recent Sexual Harassment Survey Reports for the British Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines contain stark findings.

The British Army’s report concluded that servicewomen were significantly more likely than servicemen to experience all three forms of sexual harassment investigated: generalized sexualized behaviors, targeted sexualized behaviors and particularly upsetting experiences such as sexual assault. The report for the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines showed similar findings: servicewomen were significantly more likely than servicemen to have had a particularly upsetting experience: 15% compared to just 3%.

If we were to extrapolate the findings from the reports, approximately 2,040 servicewomen in the Army – or 4,100 in the entire Armed Forces – will have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work.

In 2017, the Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces released her annual report, painting a disheartening picture of the complaints system in the military. The report found that women were over-represented in the complaints system, making 20% of complaints while making up only 10% of the Armed Forces. What’s more, the report found that the majority who did make a complaint were dissatisfied with the process overall.

Looking at the Service Police for the Armed Forces, in the same year, they conducted 109 sexual harassment investigations and 14 historical sexual offense investigations. Of the 126 victims, a staggering 100 were female. In comparison, of the 118 suspects that were involved, 115 were male, and just 29 were found guilty of a sexual offense.

With sexual harassment in the military continuing to make working life difficult for servicewomen, and to a lesser extent servicemen, what impact might this have on the future of the British Armed Forces? With the Armed Forces facing a steadily decreasing number of willing recruits and their rates of sexual harassment putting the military as the worst-offending uniformed sector in the UK, attracting strong, exemplary candidates becomes all the more difficult. Added to that, reports have shown that the number of personnel leaving military service early has been on the increase since 2004, while mental health disorders in the military increased by 78% in the last eight years.

The Everyday Sexism Project, a collection of anonymous submissions, paints a dark picture of the gender discrimination women face on a daily basis. From partners, friends, colleagues and even strangers, unsolicited and unwelcome comments and unsavory attitudes abound. Sexual harassment, in particular, features strongly in the themes gathered by the Everyday Sexism Project. It’s an issue Rebecca Crookshank, former member of the Royal Air Force, knows all too well. This is her story:

“I had a Royal Marine father and grandfather. I wanted to be just as tough as my dad, join the Armed Forces and travel like him, and get really fit and learn skills, so I just went for it. I’m really proud of leaving home, literally days after my 17th birthday, to join the Armed Forces. The basic training was 7.5 weeks and was really challenging physically and on an academic level.

“I was sent to the Falkland Islands for a four-month detachment. I’d heard stories about the girls that had gone up there, and I was already making my protest heard. I just had a bad feeling about it. When I arrived on the mountain, there was a line of blokes mooning me on the heliport. On that very first night, I was subjected to an initiation ceremony. The men were completely naked with nothing but rubber gloves on their genitals, putting me in sexual positions and making me sit on them.

“That set the tone, really. I was subjected to insistent and relentless harassment, much of it fueled by the free-flowing alcohol. At one point, I was cable-tied to a bed. When I made a complaint, the flight lieutenant who was in charge insisted on having a meeting with me in my bedroom. My private space; the only space that was just for me and felt safe. He told me I needed to ‘suck it up and stick it out’, offered me a flight on a Tornado F3 in exchange and threatened me with a bad report. I was very much pushed into a corner and silenced.

“Since I told my story, I’ve had many women and men tell me about their experiences. For so many of them, silencing was a common theme. The institution – the British Armed Forces – using their reputation and sheer size to dismiss your complaints and threaten to take away your livelihood. Now, 15 years later, the stories are still the same.

“And what has the RAF had to say about my experience, and that of countless women and men? They’ve chosen not to comment, and I think that says a lot. Because for women in the Armed Forces, there’s already a frontline battle in terms of inequality. There should be solidarity. Nobody should be subject to any of those behaviors. Yet for women, they’re fighting a battle from the very beginning. But, if one other person can hear my story and choose not to sexually harass or abuse another human being, then something positive has come out of this. I’m finding my own sense of justice through the work I’m doing to raise awareness.”

It’s clear that the Armed Forces’ own records show an alarmingly skewed experience of sexual harassment for servicewomen, and the loss to the military could be substantial, as more and more women are potentially driven away by a toxic workplace as data comes to light and the #metoo movement gains momentum around the world. Speaking up and sharing your story can be the most powerful tool for change, and we applaud the women who are going public with their stories in the hope it can make an impact.

You can see the full report from Bolt Burden Kemp by clicking here, and if you have experienced sexual harassment in the British Armed Forces get in touch with them to discuss your case.

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