The Department of Defense has said it is working on a range of measures aimed at preventing sexual harassment
It called for the armed forces to “radically adjust” their approach to sexual harassment – after a survey found 14% of female staff reported it.
The number of women who have been subjected to sexual harassment in the past year is less than 1% of men, according to the Department of Defense study.
During Armed Forces Week, which concludes Sunday, the work of military personnel was highlighted.
But what has been said about sexual harassment in the armed forces and what is being done about it?
What were the results of the poll?
The Forces Continuous Improvement Survey is an annual survey covering a range of areas and was sent to a sample of nearly 30,000 military personnel, of whom more than 9,000 responded.
A section on fairness at work states: “More than one in ten (12%) employees say they have experienced bullying, discrimination or harassment in the past 12 months, unchanged since the question was first asked in 2015.
“Separately, 14% of all female staff report having been subjected to sexual harassment in a work setting in the past 12 months, compared to less than 1% of male staff.”
The report goes on to say that of those who experience bullying, discrimination or harassment, the majority – 93% – do not make a complaint.
According to the report, “The top reasons employees do not make a formal written complaint remain: not believing that if a complaint were made, action would be taken (56%) and believing it could affect their careers (51st %). Of those who have made a formal complaint (less than 1% of all employees), seven out of ten are dissatisfied with the outcome of their complaint.”
What has been said about sexual harassment in the armed forces?
Alan Collins, whose father and other relatives served in the armed forces, said perceptions of the army had changed over the past 50 years and it was now very distant from society.
The lawyer is a partner in Hugh James Solicitors’ abuse team and claims of sexual abuse by the military are his area of expertise, he said: “This split is likely to be to the detriment of society and HM Forces and may at least partially explain the worrying extent of the sexual harassment of women.
“The armed forces are very traditional and justifiably proud of their traditions, but we have to recognize, given what we know about sexual harassment, that this can help shape mindsets. This is not to detract from tradition, but we need to understand how it can affect different aspects of lifespan.”
Those who have suffered harassment may be reluctant to make a complaint themselves after the trauma of the incident, afraid of not being believed.
Other factors include fear of reprisals from colleagues and the potential negative impact on career progression and promotion.
Mr Collins said: “Those who have been harassed are rightly proud of their service and make it clear that they have not sought special treatment or any type of favoritism on the basis of their gender.
“What they complain about is attitudes and treatment that would not be tolerated in civilian life. It is as if the maturity that is present today, for example, in our workplaces, is lacking in the forces.
“The Department of Defense would no doubt say that sexual harassment has no place in the armed forces, but that misses the point, which is that it shouldn’t happen. Of course, sexual harassment can happen anywhere when the environment allows it, but we all know what is unacceptable in our workplace and what the consequences are if we step out of line.”
Meanwhile, his colleague Danielle Vincent, a senior member of the firm’s abuse team, spoke about some of the challenges female staff may face, saying: “Historically, men have overwhelmingly held senior roles in the armed forces.”
Ms Vincent said the perception of a “boys club” culture makes it “scary and isolating” to act against it.
She said: “There may be allegations of abuse that need to be reported to senior male positions, which ultimately can put a female HR officer at ease from fear that she will be seen as sensitive or unable to take a joke.”
What steps are necessary to change something?
Both men and women who complain about sexual harassment and assault often point to common themes, such as:
Mr Collins said any pre-emptive education must make sense, with one-off talks having limited value.
He said: “What is needed is that every single person who joins HM Forces must receive thorough training on what constitutes sexual assault, what needs to be done to reduce the incidence of sexual assault, ways to report of sexual assault and their responsibility to protect their comrades” both as potential victims and as perpetrators.
“The training needs to be repeated and updated to minimize the risk of complacency.”
He added: “More thought needs to be given to reporting and confidentiality. One option might be to allow a complaint without naming those involved, but this would allow the complaint to receive support and for the service concerned to take an objective approach to what might be happening on the ground .
“I think it’s important that the realities are recognized, and in my experience they are, but the approach needs to adapt radically to bring about change.”
Mr Collins continued: “This culture of respect for our colleagues and an understanding of acceptable behavior is diminished in the armed forces in part because of this isolation from society. That needs to change.”
While Ms Vincent said more openness was needed, she added: “There is often embarrassment, shame or guilt that a survivor will experience.
“Openness within the armed forces and encouragement of disclosure of abuse must be of paramount importance, clear grievance procedures for handling and investigating allegations should be in place so this is not lost in the chain of command, training on sexual harassment should be provided and a willingness to provide Funding is provided, in particular for young talent.”
What did the MoD say?
The Department of Defense said it is taking a number of measures to prevent sexual harassment.
It added that it is working to prevent this through a culture shift across the defense and creating an environment for people to call out unacceptable behavior. Among the measures she has taken is mandatory active spectator training.
Other measures include raising awareness and trying to build trust in the complaints system, as well as providing quality support to victims.
An independent BHD (Bullying, Harassment and Discrimination) hotline, operated 24 hours a day by professionals, has been established. At the same time, a program to educate diversity and inclusion counselors on sexually unacceptable behavior has begun.
Mandatory consent training has also been introduced in primary education institutions.
A Defense Department spokesman said: “We realize that all forms of unacceptable behavior, including sexual harassment and bullying, have no place in our armed forces and anyone convicted of a sex offense will be released. We are improving sex offense reporting mechanisms so employees feel safe in raising issues and confident that allegations will be acted upon.”