Sixty senior officials speak out about ‘toxic’ behaviour towards women at UK defence department

By on 22/11/2023 | Updated on 22/11/2023

A group of women working in senior civilian roles at the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) have described a culture “hostile to women as equal and respected partners”, in which instances of abuse, sexual assault and harassment are widespread.  

In a letter sent by the group to the ministry’s permanent secretary, and seen by the Guardian newspaper, they said their “day-to-day professional lives are made difficult thanks to behaviours that would be considered toxic and inappropriate in public life, but that are tolerated at the MoD”.

“We are spoken over during meetings, we are subject to pejorative language, we receive unwanted attention and face sexual harassment, including intrusive staring, sexualised comments, running commentary about what we wear, how we look, and how we smell,” the group said.

The letter includes testimonies in which women describe, anonymously, their experiences both at the MoD’s headquarters in London and at overseas bases. These include accounts, as reported by the Guardian, of a woman being “propositioned” by a military officer “late at night in a corridor”; of one being groped at a social function and being advised not to make a complaint; and of another being “touched repeatedly” on the lower back and legs by a senior military officer who went “unpunished”.

The group also claim military officers kept an Excel spreadsheet that “rated women” based on “their looks and what they thought they’d be like in bed”.

‘Vicious cycle of men-only teams’

The letter depicts a “male-dominated” work environment in which women are disrespected, outnumbered in meetings, and overlooked for promotions, leading to what one woman said was a “vicious cycle of men-only teams at the top of the MoD”.

One woman said numerous female colleagues had decided to leave the MoD due to the culture and that she had also decided to hand in her notice. “It’s a damning indictment, as well as a colossal waste of MoD talent investment,” she said.

The testimonies included in the letter are said to be “the tip of the iceberg” and only a sample of an “extraordinary amount of concerning experiences” women have been subjected to at the department.  

The women, who said they wrote the letter “after years of trying to improve cultures softly and diplomatically from within”, claim that attempts to speak out against the behaviour “are generally minimised rather than listened to”, and that it is common knowledge among women in the department that its complaints system is “not fit for purpose”.

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MoD responds – and unions call for an investigation

The MoD said in a statement last week: “We are deeply concerned by the complaints made and we are taking action to tackle the issues raised. No woman should be made to feel unsafe in Defence and this behaviour will not be tolerated. We also continue to encourage anyone who has experienced or witnessed this kind of inexcusable behaviour, to report it immediately.”

The Guardian has also seen a letter of response by the MoD’s permanent secretary, David Williams, on 5 October in which he wrote that he was “disappointed and appalled” by the testimonies and assured the women the issues raised were “being taken seriously and will be acted on”.

The newspaper reported that a spokesperson for defence secretary Grant Shapps said he was utterly appalled by the reports. “There is absolutely no place for this kind of 1970s behaviour in the modern workplace, and [Shapps] wants to see the department taking swift and certain action to root it out,” they said.

Gareth Hills, national officer at the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, said the accounts of women’s experiences were “deeply worrying”.

“Everyone has the right to be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace. The MoD must now take action, including an immediate investigation of these allegations,” he said, adding that the FDA and other unions had requested an urgent meeting with the permanent secretary.

Read more: Australian federal agencies urged to address sexual harassment in the workplace

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About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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