The armed forces are failing to help women achieve their full potential, and when things go wrong they go “dramatically wrong”, MPs have found.
The Defence Sub-Committee on Women in the Armed Forces received an almost unprecedented level of engagement during its inquiry, with the traumatising “horror stories” it heard painting “a difficult picture for women in the military”.
While most servicewomen and female veterans consulted (almost 90% of respondents to a survey) would recommend the armed forces as a career, more than 3,000 (around 84%) reported that female service personnel face additional challenges relative to their male counterparts.
The committee’s survey found that 64% of female veterans and 58% of serving women reported experiencing bullying, harassment, discrimination (BHD) during their careers.
The majority of the women surveyed said they do not believe the military does enough to address BHD, even if things are better than they once were.
Nearly 40% of 993 military women said their experiences of the complaints system were “extremely poor”.
“Too often, complaints are being brushed under the carpet and there is inadequate support,” the report said.
It added that other parts of the military culture show “it is still a man’s world”, with more than three-quarters of the serving female personnel who engaged in the inquiry talking about inappropriate, ill-fitting uniform and body armour, which placed them at greater risk of harm in combat.
The committee said that it finds it “extraordinary” that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is not getting basics like uniforms and equipment right.
The report said that due to the difficulties of balancing service life and family life, serving mothers, often the primary care-givers, make the greatest career sacrifices and sometimes leave the military altogether.
Among mid-ranking officers, 90% of men have children compared to 10% of women.
In its overall conclusions, the report said: “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.”
It said there are “gaps between the many policy documents and practice on the ground”, adding: “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.
“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.
“Senior leadership in the armed forces and the MoD should be bold and unequivocal in solving these challenges, both for the operational effectiveness of our armed forces, and because our shared British values of fairness, equality and justice demand it.”
The chairwoman of the Sub-Committee on Women in the Armed Forces and Army veteran, Sarah Atherton MP, said: “Unfortunately, the stories we heard paint a difficult picture for women in the military.
“Accounts of bullying, harassment, discrimination, ‘laddish’ behaviour, and sometimes serious sexual assault and rape.
“The complaints system, as it stands, is woefully inadequate and leaves most feeling unable to come forward.
“We also heard accusations of senior officers sweeping complaints under the rug to protect their own reputations and careers.
“While many commanding officers want to do the right thing, it is clear that, too often, female service personnel are being let down by the chain of command.”
She added: “It is telling that, despite some horror stories that the committee heard, nine out of 10 female service personnel we spoke to during this inquiry said they would recommend a career in the military, as I would.
“Now that the issues for military women have been exposed, it is time we started to protect those who protect us and make changes that better our armed forces, for all who serve.”
She said around 4,200 women, amounting to 9% of the regular female military population, contributed to the inquiry.
Ms Atherton said it is clear to the committee that serious sexual offences should not be tried in the court martial system.
“It cannot be right that conviction rates in military courts are four to six times lower than in civilian courts. Military women are being denied justice,” she said.
Shadow armed forces minister Stephen Morgan said: “This landmark report exposes the unacceptable treatment that women continue to endure while serving our country with courage and distinction.”
He said the Defence Secretary must take urgent action to address the recommendations.
Defence minister in the House of Lords, Baroness Goldie, said: “Many changes have been introduced to improve the experience for women in the armed forces, and military service remains a fantastic career opportunity for men and women alike.
“But the reality is that that experience is not yet equal, and very occasionally can be really harmful.
“I profoundly regret that and we shall examine this report closely and use it to build on the improvements which we have made.”