Sexism within the military is rife, but no one appears to be taking servicemen to task, says Victoria Basham
Wednesday March 21, 2007
In her article on the jailing and dismissal of Royal Navy Chief Petty Officer Philip Coates for raping a woman colleague, your reporter Audrey Gillan perhaps unwittingly reinforces the all-too-familiar tale that the presence of women in the military causes boys to be boys (Sailor gets five years for raping female colleague, March 15).
Gillan's observation that Coates "was the first member of the Royal Navy to be convicted of the rape of a female colleague since women were allowed to go to sea in 1990" might suggest that this decision has been largely unproblematic. However, it also links Coates' indefensible behaviour to the presence of women on Royal Navy ships. That the rape took place after a "drunken barbecue held while the ship was at anchor in the Mediterranean", which servicewomen attended, should not be an issue. Yet it diverts attention away from Coates's actions and reinforces the notion that problems with servicemen are an outcome of allowing women to serve in the armed forces.
In my research with members of the British military on equality and diversity issues, a number of servicewomen told me about their struggles to have their achievements recognised. Many of their male colleagues simply saw them as out of place. As one Royal Navy servicewoman put it: "Servicemen that don't believe in women at sea treat you differently; they'll pile more work on to you just so that you try and prove yourself that little bit more." Another said: "You're constantly fighting to prove who you are as an individual purely because of your sex." For some women, such attitudes led to sexual harassment. One army officer told me: "I was gonna leave after three years because I was fed up with such sexist behaviour. Some people felt that you were being brought into the regiment because you were there as some kind of sexual object. I ended up locking my door every night because I felt safer that way."
Fears around the impact of the presence of women in the services also underline the Ministry of Defence's justification for restricting women's roles. When the ban on women serving in all-male close combat units was last reviewed in 2002, the MoD concluded that the impact of a woman's presence on the cohesion of these all-male units could not be ascertained or trialled in "real war" situations, and therefore the ban should remain in place. Underlying this conclusion was an assumption that the mere presence of women can disrupt male bonding. However, focusing on the presence of women severely diminishes the responsibility of servicemen to behave appropriately and to treat women's efforts seriously.
By continuing to see servicewomen as extraordinary, we are putting them at risk of sexual harassment and assault, while appeasing the servicemen who perpetrate such acts. Findings that 99% of servicewomen have experienced sexual harassment, in a report for the Equal Opportunities Commission, suggest that we should focus on the inability of servicemen to conduct themselves professionally, rather than on allowing women to serve. For many servicewomen, the greatest battle is to be taken seriously, something their male counterparts take for granted. If society and the military stop seeing women as out of place, maybe it's a battle they could win.
As an aside, and perhaps unknown to Victoria Basham, Audrey served as an Embed during Telic 1.