Sixty women at MoD complain of widespread ‘toxic’ and ‘hostile’ behaviour

Sixty senior women at the UK’s Ministry of Defence have described a “hostile” and “toxic” culture at the department in a letter that alleges sexual assault, harassment and abuse by male colleagues.

The letter, seen by the Guardian, was sent last month by a large group of senior civil servants to the MoD’s permanent secretary alongside anonymised testimonies in which women described their personal experiences.

The accounts included claims that women had been “propositioned”, “groped” and “touched repeatedly” by male colleagues at the MoD in a workplace culture the civil servants said was “hostile to women as equal and respected partners”.

In the letter, which is marked “official-sensitive”, the group of “senior civilian women” said their “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”.

“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 group said.

Testimonies included in the letter catalogue a list of alleged incidents at both the MoD’s headquarters in London and overseas bases. The accounts, the majority of which are described as “very recent”, suggest there is an abusive and discriminatory workplace culture at one of the UK government’s largest departments.

The accounts, which the letter said came from “senior civilian women in operational and security roles”, include:

  • A woman who said she was groped at an MoD social function but was advised against complaining.

  • A woman on an overseas posting who said she was “touched repeatedly on the lower back and legs by a senior military officer” but the “perpetrator went unpunished”.

  • The claim that a group of military officers kept an “Excel spreadsheet that rated women” based on “their looks and what they thought they’d be like in bed”.

  • A woman who said that before an evening event, a “defence senior” asked a woman “whether anal sex was an appropriate topic for his speech”.

  • An account of how a military officer “propositioned” a woman “late at night in a corridor” on an overseas military base.

In the testimonies, which are said to be “the tip of the iceberg” and illustrative of a “current problem, not a historic one”, women described feeling “sick with fear”, “sobbing in the bathroom”, and being subjected to “intimidating” behaviour.

According to the letter, attempts by women at the MoD to speak out against the behaviour “are generally minimised rather than listened to, and it is common knowledge among women that [the MoD’s] complaints system is not fit for purpose”.

As well as sexual harassment claims, the letter depicted a “male-dominated” work environment in which women were disrespected, outnumbered in meetings, and overlooked for promotions, leading to what one woman said was a “vicious cycle of men-only teams at the top of the MoD”.

The Guardian has seen a letter of response, sent by the MoD’s permanent secretary, David Williams, on 5 October. He wrote that he was “disappointed and appalled” by the testimonies and assured the women the issues raised were “being taken seriously and will be acted on”. He said the chief of the defence staff, Adm Sir Tony Radakin, had been made aware of the allegations.

In a statement on Thursday, the MoD said: “We are deeply concerned by the complaints made and we are taking action to tackle the 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.”

Among the accounts of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour included in the letter, women said they had felt uncomfortable and unsafe while working at the MoD’s headquarters, known as Main Building, in Whitehall.

“The groups of men staring is horrible,” said one woman, describing her experience of walking through one of the building’s main hallways. “The constant objectification and harassment is appalling. Behaviours that are completely unacceptable on public transport, for example, are accepted in pockets of Main Building.”

According to another woman, a sexual advance from a senior military official had a lasting effect on her. “It shattered my confidence and, I hate having to say this, I couldn’t help but question whether it was my fault: what is it about me that made this man think he could do this?”

The accounts were only a sample of an “extraordinary amount of concerning experiences” women at the MoD had shared with the senior officials behind the document, the letter stated. The women said they wrote the letter “after years of trying to improve cultures softly and diplomatically from within”.

According to one woman, a military officer told her “there were only two kinds of women in defence, the bitches, who were effective, and the mumsy ones, who were completely useless”.

One woman said that “every woman who has left before me has put their decision to leave down to the culture here” and now she was leaving. “It’s a damning indictment, as well as a colossal waste of MoD talent investment.”

Another woman said: “I am often the only woman in the room and on almost all occasions men comment on what I wear, my fragrance, and if I’m wearing a skirt or dress, they have often remarked: ‘You have legs.’”

Some of the women reported offensive comments, insensitivity and a lack of support while pregnant. One woman said she became accustomed to being asked by men about her “age/fertility/childbearing aspirations”.

The letter, which was also sent to a board-level human resources committee, called for immediate action to change the department’s policies and address the issues identified with its internal culture. The group of women insisted the “scale of this problem and the extent to which it affects defence merits a properly resourced external intervention”.