Make, or Brake?

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Credit: National Geographic

“I can’t believe I’ve got off scot-free for so long,” says the woman opposite me.

We are in a revamped youth hostel near the Gare du Nord in Paris. It is busy with young people relaxing into their Friday evening. I am (I admit) feeling slightly too old to be here (ordering a hot chocolate instead of a beer may be proof of this) but also rather proud, given the cool company I’m keeping.

The woman I have come to meet, you see, is a Major in the British Army, and who better to help me understand why only 10% of serving military personnel in the UK are female?

Starter for ten?

I have come armed (ho!) with my statistics, articles, and studies.  It makes for fascinating reading, and as usual I have more questions than answers. But there is an easy starting point: the depressing 10% of women in the armed forces is the same miserable 10% we find for female heads of state or government.

Nothing like consistency, eh.

Late to the table…

My Major is at pains to stress that it is impossible to analyse female participation today without remembering what it was yesterday.   Before the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) merged with the main British Army in 1992, their training included deportment lessons and flower-arranging (perhaps to cleverly camouflage an AK47?). And even after the merger, women were not allowed to carry weapons (so as not to put their posture out).

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WRAC members 1940s. Credit: BBC News

So that is one (simple) part of the answer: our armed forces have fewer women because it’s a relatively recent career option. But that doesn’t explain why the numbers applying to join today are still low. At current rates, it will be difficult for the armed forces to meet their (not overly ambitious) 2020 target of 15% servicewomen.

So do we need a specific recruitment drive for women? Current advertisements are generally like this one: rousing, fraternel, and usually with some extreme Bear-Grylls type climate conditions.

But if the argument is that women can (and want to) do whatever men can, why should they need any special encouragement in the first place?

A man’s world?

Maybe it’s because we ladies just don’t have the inclination for that kind of thing. Women are by nature soft, cuddly things, with an instinctive abhorrence for war, mud or manslaughter, right?  After all, when was the last time you saw a little girl running around the playground with a play pistol?

And aside from that natural disinclination, there’s those pesky female biologies that get in the way.

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Ewe, too?

My Major says she is often asked questions about how she manages her period, for example, during fieldwork. And the perception of physical weakness is not just popular rhetoric. Decisions from the US and UK governments in the last two years to open front-line combat positions (e.g. infantry) to women have been met with dismay from some senior figures who claim such equality would “endanger” lives.

The physiological differences between men and women are an undeniable reality. Jessica Ennis will ever beat Usain Bolt in the 100m gold, and there it is.  But we are no longer in trench warfare of the 20th century. The breadth of non-combat roles across the armed forces, due to modernisation of war, weapons and machinery, have by and large removed any unique prerequisite of brawn before brain.

“On paper, it’s all open”

And of course, intake is one thing. But there are also outflows, or (aptly named) “wastage”: those who join the armed services, but leave.

For women, there are apparently two reasons for throwing in the (tea)towel.

The first is discrimination. This takes a variety of forms, from unconscious or engrained attitudes, to deliberate exclusion, physical or emotional harassment. It is always hard to quantify discrimination, but a survey in 2016 carried out by the UK government found 39% of Army servicewomen (v. 22% of servicemen) had suffered unwelcome attention or comment on their appearance or behaviour.

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Source: Speak Out government report

Though it is worth remembering the (much lower) rates of more serious manifestations of sexual harassment, the fact that only 30% of all service personnel responded to the survey in the first place – and that so few of those who did think they had been victim of it felt they could report it – would imply the reality is likely to be worse.

In recent years, recognising the impact on personnel and on reputation, armed forces have made efforts to tackle this discrimination (and the rates in 2016 report cited above are lower than for 2009). In the UK, officers must undergo diversity training, for example; in France, following the publication of a damning book in 2014, the French Ministry of Defence launched an ambitious action plan to prevent and penalise harassment.

(Whether or not such measures are effective is another question. Three years on, there has been no evaluation of said action plan, for example).

So: discrimination is a very real reason why women leave. The other: babies.

Work-life balance?

Because getting pregnant, getting back into shape, and coping with little people all takes time and effort: and might cost you a promotion.  Arguably this is the case in many organisations – but it is especially important in the forces given the pyramid hierarchy and limited opportunities for flexible working on return.

And, well, combining bairns with defending one’s country can be tricky. The Royal Navy’s ‘duty of care’ policy, for example, means ships must return any female member of the team who discovers, well, a baby on board. And dropping everything and hauling out to some barren, hostile environment (for which you receive an non-negligable 18% retainer in your Army paypacket, fondly known as the ‘fuck-around factor’) is hardly easy for soldiers with young children. This is why, as late as 1990 (when the law was changed) servicewomen who fell pregnant were asked to leave.

Cultural change?

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And yet, and yet. These obstacles are being recognised, partly because senior management understand that gender equality is not only moving with the times, but is essential to counter a shortage of personnel in specific roles.

In the UK armed forces, for instance, part-time work (previously not an option) or “static” career paths (for those less able or willing to be mobile) are now being considered. Women are now welcome in formerly male-only roles; in submarines; on the front line; and more and more women are making the senior grades, including two star positions in the RAF from 2013 and Army from 2016.  Not to mention that both the Army and the Royal Navy were in the UK’s top fifty employers for women in 2016 (based on a commitment to “fundamentally changing workplace processes and cultures to make them inclusive to all, benefitting women and men at every level in their organisation”).

And, despite the “wastage” that happens before pregnancy, the number of women returning to work after maternity leave has risen from 76% in 2003 to an impressive 93% by 2014.

So it’s not all doom and gloom. But we still don’t seem to be going very far, very fast. Why is there no % target for, say, 2025? Is full gender equality – all roles open to all, a 50% male and female breakdown – realistic or even desirable? My Major shakes her head when I bring up the idea of fifty-fifty. It is not about targets, she says;

Equality must be achieved through merit.

In an organisation run on discipline and allegiance, legitimacy comes from everyone, male or female, meeting the required standards.  Move the goalposts to promote diversity (e.g. easier physical tests for women) and you actually  make it harder for them in the long run.

That said, she says, eyeing my uneaten Speculoos biscuit, the obstacles which women face in military careers are real, and frequent.  Sometimes it is hard to believe until you actually witness it. Beyond friendly ‘banter’ which never bothered her, my Major recalls the first time she was whistled at by French regulars in an operation in Chad.  The experience was a shock, and something which made her think about her own responsibility (and ability) as a senior female officer to shape the Army from the inside out.

I finish my interview reluctantly. It is fascinating. I have another hundred questions for this impressive woman, but duty calls, and we are out of time.

So instead I give her my thanks, and (in a rare act of food-related generosity) I surrender the Speculoos biscuit, too.

Well, anything for Queen and country, after all.

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