Sixty women working at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) have written a letter describing a ‘toxic’ and hostile work environment, claiming multiple accounts of sexual assault and harassment.
The letter was sent to David Williams, the MoD’s permanent secretary, by a group of senior female civil servants, who described anonymised accounts and a workplace culture that is “hostile to women as equal respected partners” and left female employees feeling “sick with fear”.
The document said the organisation’s “complaints system is not fit for purpose” as those women who attempted to speak up would be “minimised rather than listened to”.
“(Our) day-to-day professional lives are made difficult thanks to behaviours that would be considered toxic and inappropriate in public life, but that are tolerated at the MoD,” read the letter from the MoD.
“'We are spoken over during meetings, we are subject to pejorative language, we receive unwanted attention and face sexual harassment, including intrusive staring, sexualised comments, running commentary about what we wear, how we look, and how we smell.”
The allegations, which reportedly come from “senior civilian women in operational and security roles”, include recent events at the organisation’s London offices and overseas trips.
The allegations include:
A female MoD employee said she was groped at a social event and was discouraged to make a complaint.
A second employee described how a senior defence official asked her “whether anal s*x” was an appropriate topic for a speech he was doing.
Another victim said that while working abroad a senior military officer repeatedly touched her back and legs, the perpetrator going unpunished.
While another employee described being propositioned by a military officer in a corridor whilst working overseas.
Another allegation includes male colleagues creating an Excel spreadsheet whereby they rate women “on their looks” and what “they’d be like in bed”.
The MoD released a comment, saying: “We are taking action to tackle the deeply concerning issues raised. No woman should be made to feel unsafe in Defence and this behaviour will not be tolerated.
“We also continue to encourage anyone who has experienced or witnessed this kind of inexcusable behaviour, to report it immediately.”
A year of sexual misconduct claims
These allegations come at a time when multiple big brands and organisations have also had employees come out and express sexual misconduct claims.
Jim Moore, employee relations expert at HR Hamilton Nash, weighs in: “In the last 12 months we've seen reports of sexual misconduct and a toxic culture at the CBI, sexual harassment at McDonald’s, sexism and harassment within the Red Arrows, as well as reports of bullying and harassment within the House of Commons.
“This latest news lands a second blow for the MoD, coming on the heels of whistle-blower evidence to the Defence Committee in May detailing numerous cases of harassment, rape and sexual assault among women in the armed services.
“In almost all cases, these forms of institutionalised harassment only arise because the leadership has collectively turned a blind eye and allowed a toxic culture to fester. Bosses should embody the behaviour they expect from others and never dismiss misconduct as horseplay, banter or people ‘letting off steam’.
“Organisations must create an environment where employees feel comfortable speaking up if they witness or experience any inappropriate behaviour.
“It is not enough to simply create an anonymous phone number or email address for confidentially reporting incidents. Thorough investigations and proper action needs to be taken, together with a robust policy on enforcement and staff safeguarding.
“The regularity of these complaints leaves us wondering which large organisation will next be in the harassment spotlight.”