London -- Friday May 26, 2006
Sexual harassment rife in armed forces
· 1 in 4 women reports offensive male behaviour
· Defence chief admits urgent action is needed
A female soldier in the British army ... a survey has shown that sexual harassment is rife in the armed forces. Photograph: Garry Weaser/Guardian
Sexual harassment is rife in the armed forces, with 99% of servicewomen reporting they had been subjected to some form of sexual remark or material by male colleagues in the past year. One in seven - 15% - say they have had a "particularly upsetting" experience over the same period, ranging from sexually explicit comments through to sexual assault.
The figures are part of a huge survey into sexual harassment in the armed forces which began last June following several high profile sexual harassment cases and a high number of complaints to the Equal Opportunities Commission. The commission announced its intention to use its statutory powers to investigate, but the Ministry of Defence held off the inquiry by agreeing to commission the independent report, which was released yesterday.
More than half of all servicewomen, or 9,384 personnel, responded to the survey, and almost all had experienced sexual jokes and stories or been exposed to sexual language and material in the workplace. The survey found a high tolerance for such behaviour, but more than half of the respondents said they sometimes found it offensive. Women were most insulted by explicit sexual language, details of sexual exploits and pornography.
More than two-thirds of the women had direct experience of sexual harassment, which ranged from unwelcome comments to unwanted touching and sexual assault.
Of the 15% of women who had had a "particularly upsetting" experience, an eighth said it had been a sexual assault. The findings also consistently showed that younger women and women of lower ranks were more vulnerable to sexual harassment. Nearly half (49%) of the experiences lasted for two months and 23% lasted six months. A quarter of those who had had a "particularly upsetting" experience were considering leaving the forces and 11% had health problems.
Nearly half the women felt there was a problem with sexual harassment in the services, and the longer they had been in the service, the more likely they were to think so. By contrast, most servicemen involved in focus groups on the subject did not think there was a problem.
The research is the first phase in an action plan against sexual harassment that the armed forces have agreed to implement, and reflects an acknowledgment by senior MoD officials that a cultural change is needed.
"We have a problem we must deal with urgently," said the chief of the defence staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup. "This is not about political correctness. It is about operational effectiveness."
Air Chief Marshal Stirrup said any behaviour which weakens the trust and inter-dependence of armed forces personnel would erode their effectiveness in the field, but denied that macho behaviour was essential to team bonding.
"We will not become fuzzy and un-military ... but what we will do is insist that each and every member of the armed forces respects and values each other."
The secretary of state for defence, Des Browne, said the British armed forces were "standard bearers for the values they defend" on deployment, and as such it was vital for these values to be upheld within the service itself.
The research was commissioned after several high profile sexual harassment cases, including that of Catherine Brumfitt, a military police officer. In June 2003 she attended a training course run by Sergeant JJ Fitzpatrick, who used sexual scenarios to illustrate points in his lessons, and frequently used sexual terms such as "tommed up the arse", "butt fuck" and "wanking over the bed sheets".
Although the employment tribunal found there was no sexual harassment, it accepted that Sgt Fitzpatrick's conduct was humiliating to Mrs Brumfitt as a woman. She has since left the armed forces and Sgt Fitzpatrick has been promoted.
In another case, Corporal Leah Mates, 30, of the 14 Intelligence Company in Northern Ireland, sought £686,000 in damages and loss of earnings after she reported being subjected to a long list of sexual bullying incidents. When deployed in Kosovo, she said a male soldier masturbated while shouting her name in a tent shared by her and seven other soldiers. There had been comments about the size of her breasts, and a picture of her face was placed on a shooting target. In her statement, Cpl Mates said the harassment had led to her feeling suicidal.
At the hearing in Southampton last year the tent incident was dismissed as "light Army banter".
In a statement to the tribunal hearing, she said: "I now began to understand that the army is a male preserve and a woman who tries to establish herself does so at the peril of her health and happiness."
She was told she had proved 12 of more than 40 allegations, with compensation being awarded for six. The other six did not meet a deadline set by the employment tribunal. She was awarded £12,000.