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Does Equality Really Exist in the Armed Forces?

View profile for Alexandra Dean
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It took nearly 100 years, but in July 2017 women were afforded the right to fight on the frontline.  

It is a glaring reality that men still make up a significant proportion of those serving in the British Armed Forces, with women making up only 10% of the Army, 9.2% of the Navy and 13.8% of the RAF. Nonetheless times are changing and it’s time to look at whether the British Military are really shedding their macho image and sending out the right message about gender equality.

Until recently, women serving in the British Armed Forces were only allowed to serve on the frontline providing medical care and carrying out bomb disposals, but were not permitted to serve in the Infantry, where they would be involved in close combat. This was by no means an easy move, nor has the reaction to the change been entirely positive.

The ban on women serving on the frontline was lifted in November 2016, the Ministry of Defence conducted a two year review of whether women would be able to meet the physical requirements of serving on the frontline. Whilst it found that there was no evidence that women would not be able to cope, impending changes to the standard of fitness testing required to serve on the frontline have been met with criticism with some arguing that standards are being lowered in order to accommodate women and one ex-Army chief going as far as to say that it would be a “foolish move” and that it would be “paid for in blood” if female rights to serve on the frontline were aligned with those of men.

But more needs to be done and despite these changes many still report that it is not easy being a woman in the Armed Forces with alarmingly high levels of sexual harassment another indication of the lack of equality and the challenges that women face.

In 2014, women in the Armed Forces who shared their experiences of sexism and sexual harassment went viral. The post received over 30,000 comments, many of which detailed alleged bullying, rape and threatening behaviour. One of the most common complaints made by women was that they felt their authority was being questioned because of their gender.

A further study in 2015 found that nearly 4 out of 10 women in the Army received unwanted comments or were exposed to material of a sexual nature in the preceding year. In-depth research has been piloted on four occasions by the Ministry of Defence since 2006, with concern that the Army has an overly sexualised culture where inappropriate behaviour is considered conventional.

However, there are some small signs that women in the Armed Forces are starting to get the support and recognition they deserve. In February 2015, Staff Sergeant Kate Lord received the prestigious Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Services for challenging the opinions of young men in the Afghan National Army, who accused her of “being weak.” Earlier, in January 2015, the Army’s first transgender Officer, Hannah Winterbourne, was praised for speaking openly about realising her “body was wrong” whilst she was serving in Afghanistan.

It still remains the case that the biggest challenge the majority of women will face in the Armed Forces is equality, which given the nature of the role is concerning. Unless every physical test and standard is gender free, this is likely to always be the case. But by celebrating women who have managed to rise through the ranks they pave the way for others to do the same and that can only be a good thing.

At Gepp & Sons, our Employment Law Team have acted for numerous service personnel who have filed Service Complaints. If you require advice on this subject or any other aspect of military law please contact either our Head of Military Law, Roger Brice or our Head of Employment, Alexandra Dean, on 01245 228141 or via deana@gepp.co.uk.

This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.