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Widespread ‘toxic’ and ‘hostile’ culture at UK’s Ministry of Defence: senior women speak out

In a deeply concerning revelation, sixty senior female civil servants at the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) have raised their voices against what they describe as a ‘hostile’ and ‘toxic’ work environment. This group sent a letter, seen by the Guardian, to the MoD’s permanent secretary, detailing disturbing accounts of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse perpetrated by male colleagues.

The letter, marked as “official-sensitive”, lays bare a culture within the MoD that is alarmingly dismissive and disrespectful towards women. The women, holding operational and security roles, paint a concerning picture of their day-to-day experiences. They report being ‘propositioned’, ‘groped’, and ‘touched repeatedly’ in an environment they describe as “hostile to women as equal and respected partners”.

These senior civilian women have shared testimonies that extend beyond verbal harassment. Their narratives include incidents of physical assault at MoD social functions, overseas postings, and even in the corridors of the MoD’s headquarters in London. The letter describes an abusive and discriminatory workplace culture, with allegations including an Excel spreadsheet maintained by a group of military officers that objectified women, rating them based on their appearance and perceived sexual desirability.

The Guardian’s exclusive report highlights that these accounts are not isolated or historic incidents but represent a ‘current problem’. Women have recounted feeling ‘sick with fear’, ‘sobbing in the bathroom’, and subjected to intimidating behavior. The letter points out that attempts to speak out against such behavior are often minimized, with the MoD’s complaint system being described as ineffective.

The letter also paints a picture of a ‘male-dominated’ environment where women are not only disrespected but are also significantly outnumbered in meetings and overlooked for promotions. This has resulted in what is termed a ‘vicious cycle of men-only teams at the top of the MoD’.

Responding to these allegations, MoD’s permanent secretary, David Williams, expressed his disappointment and concern, assuring that the issues raised are being taken seriously. The MoD, in a statement, reiterated its commitment to safety, emphasising that such behaviour is intolerable and that they encourage reporting of any such.

The report sheds light on a systemic problem within one of the UK government’s largest departments. Women have described feeling uncomfortable and unsafe within the MoD’s headquarters, with one account detailing how a senior military official’s sexual advance shattered a woman’s confidence, leading her to question if it was her fault.

These accounts are but a sample of a more extensive collection of concerning experiences shared by women at the MoD. The women behind this document assert that they wrote the letter “after years of trying to improve cultures softly and diplomatically from within”.

One woman’s statement starkly outlines the situation: “There are only two kinds of women in defense, the bitches, who were effective, and the mumsy ones, who were completely useless.” This sentiment, echoed by many, underscores the dire need for change. Some women have even attributed their decision to leave the MoD to this pervasive culture, highlighting a significant loss of talent and investment for the department.

The letter concludes with a call for immediate action, demanding changes in the department’s policies and an external intervention to address these deep-rooted issues.

In response to the letter, Dr Iain Overton of Action on Armed Violence said: “These revelations from deep within the MoD, released on a day when it was also alleged senior military officers hid evidence of extra-judicial killings by British Special Force, are deeply worrying. They reflect a concerning pattern of systemic abuse and gender discrimination that AOAV has noted for years. It’s not just about individual accountability but a profound need for institutional reform that is required.”