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The military has recognised its harassment problem. Now it must talk about it | Sophy Gardner | Opinion

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Recently I had coffee with a fellow veteran. She recalled her experience of going to sea with the Royal Navy for the first time. On being shown which compartments she could use to dry laundry, she had her attention drawn to special cages for her underwear “so it wouldn’t get stolen” by men on board. She thought at the time this was thoughtful treatment of women at sea. She and I have together come to see these sorts of behaviours very differently.

I experienced being told explicitly “I wasn’t welcome” as a woman in a new role, “it wasn’t a problem that I was a woman” in another more senior role; the former comment openly hostile but the latter more subtly demeaning. These comments came from men ranked above me at different points in my career. I felt at the time I had “to suck it up” and I, like my friend, struggled with recognising unacceptable behaviour for what it was. This, I believe, is part of the problem identified by the Ministry of Defence in its Report on Inappropriate Behaviours.

The report deliberately focuses on culture and behaviours. Air Marshal Mike Wigston, due to take over as the RAF’s chief of the air staff later this month, rightly identifies that cultural change moves slowly in the armed forces, not least because the march to the top of those organisations is inherently hierarchical.

The report makes for a frank and thought-provoking read. As a straight white woman, I can speak personally only to the discussions of sexism and hope that veterans of colour, for example, will feel similarly encouraged to speak out with me on the report’s discussions on racism and sexual orientation.

The report correctly identifies that pride in military service and a “protect the cap badge” mentality can hold organisations back from dealing fully with complaints.

In my experience, there is a deeper issue at play: those currently serving find it hard to see or admit that inappropriate behaviours are something they have witnessed or experienced. They self-police not only out of fear of the consequences for themselves or their team, but because they feel signed up to maintaining a code of honour and pride in their service. I’m not talking about the most egregious examples of harassment and bullying but the kind of thing a campaign such as #EverydaySexism exposes. This is deeply unhealthy and makes it harder for people with more serious complaints to come forward.

The RAF’s experience of tackling flight safety is relevant here. In order to significantly improve safety, the service identified that a cultural change was required. Aircrew needed to know that highlighting flight safety issues was not something that would invite criticism – instead honesty was rewarded. Gradually, issues that had been reported anonymously, if at all, were discussed openly: it was not credible to deny they existed.

It’s not a directly applicable example, but if we aren’t all prepared to discuss inappropriate behaviours, then the military won’t make the cultural change Wigston seeks.

In 1992, my first RAF station warrant officer (SWO), the most senior non-commissioned officer on the base, was a woman – she was a brilliant role model. However, the RAF likes to point to early achievements such as this, the first women pilots, and being the first force to open all its roles to women. Yet the post of the most senior warrant officer in the RAF, the chief of the air staff’s warrant officer, has never been held by a woman. Surely, in all those years since I experienced the formidable leadership of a female SWO, the RAF could have found one woman to fill that top job? Not for the sake of being the first, but because it has those women within their ranks.

It’s often only when we leave that we discuss these issues more openly. We look round the back of the Potemkin village and see what we couldn’t see when we were serving. In responding to this report, the MoD might want to reach out to veterans with lengthy service experience, pride in our service, but also independence from the armed forces.

Wigston has identified the importance of diversity training at every level of the military from junior non-commissioned to higher command. The report quotes a flagship charity: “a centrally produced PowerPoint slide pack, sent out to be delivered as mandatory training will not fix this … ”. Too right.

My experience of diversity training was that a minority of senior officers treated the course with disdain: evidence that the “PC brigade” had taken hold. I doubt if they thought for a second how their behaviour affected the women and people of colour who were sitting in that room with them. Mike Wigston thinks they should, and I wholeheartedly agree.

Sophy Gardner is doing a PhD in political history and was an officer in the RAF from 1991 to 2011

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