Lieutenant-Colonel Diane Allen served 30 years in the British Army. She was one of the first women at Sandhurst and served in Northern Ireland and Germany in the regular army, then 25 years in the Reserves, alongside a career in the public and private sector. She moved through the ranks and in November 2018, Diane was awarded the OBE for services to military intelligence. But by November 2019, she had decided to leave. Her book, Forewarned, chronicles her experiences in the British Army and is published on July 28th 2020
I found the Army, more than the other services, to be misogynistic and bad at calling out every-day sexism. Where I think the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force are as bad each other is in dealing with toxic behaviour when it occurs. As the military is a close-knit community, it is hard to speak up without feeling as if we are betraying our ‘family’. The sense of family gives us our feeling of belonging, because the military is not just a job, it is a lifestyle. Even when the culture is toxic, we can still feel it is ‘normal.’ My military ‘normal’ was that every-day sexism was common, but not everywhere. It was pushed back by strong leadership, but it was always there in the background. As a military woman, I learned to tolerate the small stuff because I was in a minority and wanted to fit in. I decided to speak up myself when I realised that if I tolerated base-line sexism, I was less likely to notice when it was moving from general to targeted sexist assaults.
As an example, if I ignore (yet again), that ‘old school individual’ who casually says to me that he ‘can’t work with women’ or makes persistent sexist remarks and I don’t report it, I feel it just emboldens him – and he may encourage others or may himself move up to assault a younger, or more junior woman – because I didn’t use my own position as an officer, to challenge him. Further, if others saw me ignore that misogyny, that toxic behaviour becomes normalised. Of course, if leadership is very weak, speaking up can lead to being ostracised and loss of career, which was my experience, but not speaking up leads to a continuing culture of silence. This is our dilemma and why it requires both support and bravery to step forward. But if we do not, then the good men and women simply leave the service, as is happening now. Retention rates fall and dissatisfaction with service rises.
The military needs its own #MeToo moment because it has fallen into this culture of silence – of turning a blind eye to poor behaviours or minimising them. Worse, I have heard too many tales recently of individuals being coerced to withdraw complaints or change their reasons for leaving. How can we reverse this toxic culture?
First, we need an independent body where we can report problems. Commanding officers are often told to minimise complaints as a route to promotion. This means some will seek to avoid any report that might damage their own reputation or make their units look bad. The Wigston report (in July 2019) recognised unacceptable levels of inappropriate behaviours and described the cause as due to toxic leadership by ‘a pack of middle-aged white men’ who are still setting the rules.
Secondly, that independent body must be rank-neutral. The military system is of course hierarchical. But power imbalances across the board make it easier for more senior individuals to suggest that an allegation is ignored or glossed over, or to coerce juniors to keep silent. Power also sits in majority groupings – minorities take the brunt of power imbalances. In the military, women and ethnic minorities have less power to set the rules. And the cultural problems stem from toxic power, not just misogyny.
And thirdly, the biggest. The service complaints system is appalling. It is managed by military officers, not HR professionals and controlled in the background by military lawyers. Deliberately under-funded, it can take years to navigate. The MoD set the terms – selecting the witnesses, deciding what evidence to review and have under-resourced and constrained the Ombudsman to the point that there is a 12 month backlog – she cannot deliver meaningful or enforceable outputs. Without a truly independent service complaints system, as recommended by recent reviews, there cannot be meaningful change.
My book covers the story of what happened to me during my military service – the good as well as the bad and how I finally reached the moment of courage to speak up. In the end, stepping forward was less hard than keeping quiet. It was easy because the choice was only between staying and turning a blind eye to what I saw or leaving to speak out and be part of changing the toxic cultures. My sense of well-being improved once I made the decision to speak out. I feel I am finally saying out loud, not just in my head, that it is not okay for the military to continue with this wall of silence.
I hope my story will put a human face on the issues in the modern armed forces and give many other women the courage to speak up. There are solutions – other countries are doing better and we can as well if we all stand together.
I salute all of you who have taken the same journey and are now part of a Military #MeToo moment. It starts with each of us saying, as many of you have, that toxic behaviour in the military is no longer acceptable.