Greater Integration

As military personnel policies seek to reflect changes in broader society, traditional boundaries are challenged by changing family structures, increasing diversity, and a drive for equality.

In general, we heard that the Armed Forces are becoming empathetic to the real needs of family life, are keen to embrace diversity, and are looking at new ways to provide greater opportunity to more people. It is also fair to say that not everyone felt completely comfortable with the idea of traditional hierarchies being challenged. “Diverse workforces have more successful outcomes. But they are not the military. Should we reflect society? I’m not sure.” However, despite the reticence of some, Armed Forces personnel are increasingly beginning to reflect the social and demographic changes taking place within the wider community.

Some suggest that because the Armed Forces have traditionally lived within a closed community, or “behind the wire”, becoming more diverse has taken longer to take effect than would otherwise have been the case. But as more Service men and women choose to live within the wider community, barriers are being broken down. Greater interaction with civilian life certainly makes the transition out of the Armed Forces easier. It also makes it easier for family members to build a life of their own, forging a career, or for children, going to school with a wider cohort. Some suggest that in the future, “maybe a family will never have to live behind the wire. It will just become commonplace to live close to your work, like others do.” Others disagree. “I don’t think it will go that far”, as “being in the Armed Forces is not a job, it’s a life. It’s 24/7.” So often “there is no need to go beyond the wire and no need for life beyond the wire to come to you.”

One expert proposed that overall, “there is a huge blind spot around families.” In particular, “veteran families are a hidden group”. Whether on or off base, greater understanding of the challenges and different needs of family life is clearly needed. Perhaps this is down to a lack of appropriate leadership. With its still largely male focus, several consider that “the military is not remotely there in equality and diversity.” For example, we heard reference to senior leadership of both the Armed Forces and also the charities that support them being “stale, pale, and male.” Certainly, even a rough review of the makeup of the senior members of both these groups shows a lack of diversity and representation. This was acknowledged by some in senior positions who we spoke to. Some hoped that, as they retire, “boards do not appoint in their likeness, but instead bring fresh, different approaches to their leadership.”

Despite the stated intent to be more receptive to family needs, the knock-on effect on family life was often mentioned as a reason for leaving the Armed Forces. This disproportionally affects women, as “a lot of women leave the Armed Forces because of the challenge of balancing kids, where primary care givers are still mostly women.” This was evidenced in a number of our interviews, “It was a real hardship to leave, but the reason I left was that the military made it incompatible to serve and to bring up children.” To be fair, the MOD is increasing its investment in childcare support; however, as yet this has had little positive effect. We hear, “children of serving personnel have been found to be at greater risk (compared to children with non-military parents) of emotional and behavioural problems.” Consequently, “you choose your career, or you choose your children.”

While “there are more female veterans out there,” according to the Biannual Diversity Statistics Publication, they currently comprise only 11% of UK Regular Forces and 15% of Reserves. As a result, integration back into society can be a lonely process. “It is doubly difficult being both a veteran and a woman.” Several we spoke to suggest it is “amazing how little dedicated provision there is for female vets.” In part, this is because “most studies focus on men, with limited evidence based on the experience of women and families.” As more women are joining the Armed Forces, the problem is becoming more pressing. “If this is not addressed, then those problems will magnify if nothing is done about it now.” Few we spoke to believe that the Armed Forces are alone in managing this challenge. One female veteran told us, “I have experienced more sexism and more opposition in the corporate arena than I ever did in the military. In the military, your value was determined on what you contributed, on your analysis or intellectual dexterity, and I miss that.”

In addition to problems around childcare, “one of the most commonly recorded reasons for personnel leaving the military is unsuitable employment opportunities for spouses and partners.” Most we spoke to agreed that more should be done to support them, not only during Service, but also during transition. “There is still not enough follow up sometimes. It seems that this is due to focus; there are simply too many other priorities to be dealt with.” It’s also due to process; “at the moment, the military can only contact families through the Service person. So lots of information gets lost.” Given this, it would seem, although the intent to better support families during transition is often stated, in truth, little real action has been taken to do anything to drive change.

It has been difficult for the Armed Forces to recognise the complexity of modern family units, and we often heard the suggestion that the “concept of family needs to be carefully considered, as there are lots of different styles of family.” Several felt “a huge relief when the MOD recognised gay marriage and civil marriage,” but “the serving community is a small ‘c’ conservative community” and needs to continue to move forwards. Much can be achieved if the right tone and language are used. However, “at a recent Mess dinner, I heard some stuff that made me think that people don’t understand the terminology – they are struggling to see people as just people.” In terms of the MOD keeping pace with society, some have the impression that, rather than becoming more aligned, “… the two have diverged more over the last 20 years. Civil society and its ideas are racing ahead – but the Armed Forces find it difficult to have open and unembarrassed conversations. That worries me, because I see a loss of relevance.”

Issues around racial, ethical and sexual inclusion have caused problems such as bullying and exploitation in the past. The MOD has acknowledged this and in response, commissioned the Wigston Review which made 36 recommendations, all of which were accepted. Some of these are about improving the complaints system and processes, but the majority are about preventing instances of inappropriate behaviour occurring in the first place. Most noticeably, we heard of the need to rebuild trust in the system. Sometimes, victims felt that their complaint will not be understood or taken seriously. Cultural differentials do not help here; the chain of command is not normally representative of those under their command, so people fear – or experience – unconscious bias.

Senior figures are trying to address this in a number of different ways. For example, General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the Defence Staff, recently called on all personnel to see the potential in every recruit, irrespective of faith, colour, gender or creed, and to value them for their abilities, “not for what they look like or where they come from”. Despite this, incidents of racism persist, and many we spoke to acknowledged further practical actions are needed.

Alongside the moral reasons for this, there are practical considerations to be taken into account. Given that the young cohort from which the Army in particular recruits is more ethnically diverse than the population as a whole, it needs to improve its image among BAME people to keep its numbers up. The Armed Forces clearly are on a journey to improve diversity. They are not alone. As one interviewee put it, “I thought the military was medieval on racism, until I left and worked elsewhere.”

Example Implication: Greater understanding of and support for the needs of those of different gender, faith and ethnic groups will encourage wider diversity among the Armed Forces and reduce undesirable attrition.


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