By Rhicha Kapila, partner in the military claims team at law firm Bolt Burdon Kemp.
The Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson made an important move towards greater gender equality within the forces yesterday, by allowing women to apply for any role including the special forces.
Going forward, infantry will be allowed to apply for roles based on their ability alone rather than their gender. This is the latest step in a long battle towards equality – the former Head of the Army has argued this week that military leaders have been widening opportunities for female soldiers for several years, one example was the move in 2016 to lift the ban on women serving in close combat units.
Women who have previously experienced blocks in their career due to gender will now hopefully find more doors opened to them as a result of these changes. In fact, as of December this year current recruits will be able to apply for basic training into these specialist forces – the Royal Marines selection will start in December and the first female applicants will be on training courses in Lympstone early next year.
However, the recruitment and retention issue within the forces cannot be ignored.
The latest National Audit Office report indicated that the forces were short of 8,000 military personnel, which is the biggest deficit in a decade.
This could be why the Defence Secretary yesterday argued that the forces need to be seen as ‘modern employers’ and ‘recruiting the right person for the role’.
This is all part of their campaign to encourage people from all backgrounds to join the Army. For example, a recent recruitment campaign confirmed that it was okay to practice your faith in the Army and to show emotion.
However, the armed forces are still male-dominated (only 10.2% of the armed forces are women) and although this news is likely to encourage more female applicants, more needs to be done to change the culture and tackle some serious issues which prevent women from both joining the military and staying for extended periods.
Unfortunately, they, like many women across the UK, are forced to contend with one specific issue at a rate far above that of their male colleagues: workplace sexual harassment. In fact, according to the Armed Forces’ own records, more than one in ten servicewomen reported an "upsetting" experience in the past year, according to the Army's 2018 'Speak Out' report. These women shouldn’t have to put up with harassment.
The SAS may have opened its doors to women, which is great, but until women are happy and safe in their roles there will always be a retention issue.
While this week’s news is a great step forward for many women in their military careers, it remains to be seen what the armed forces are doing to bring true equality to their recruits. Everyone is waiting to see a reform of the culture within the forces, and what lessons will be learnt from inquiries like Deepcut – only then will we see improved recruitment and retention.