Equality warrior: Defence D&I director Sam des Forges on safe spaces, role models and what success will look like

The MoD's first ever diversity and inclusion director talks to Tevye Markson about holding departmental chiefs to account and fixing simple problems
RAF pride march in 2019

By Tevye Markson

30 May 2022

Samantha des Forges – the Ministry of Defence’s first ever diversity and inclusion director – is no stranger to feeling like an outsider.

“Earlier in my career – I am a gay woman – I didn’t feel comfortable being out. I think I heard pieces of banter. I didn’t feel that it was necessarily a safe space for me to be myself.

“And I recall how tiring and exhausting that could be in terms of hiding myself and keeping slightly distant from colleagues and I wasn’t putting 100% of my effort into my job.

“It wasn’t until I started seeing senior role models, people creating safe spaces and being allies, that I felt I could be myself and then my career moved really positively because I could give all my time and focus to that.

“That has always been a really personal motivation in this space, that I know what it feels like to feel like an outsider and I know how much more of an impact I can give to an organisation when I’m able to be myself.”

Des Forges first encountered a role model that gave her the confidence to come out as gay while at EY, where she worked for 15 years before joining Network Rail in 2013 and then the MoD in 2016.

“Probably three or four years into my career, I recall a senior woman who was a partner and who was visibly a gay woman and she was talking quite openly about the fact that she was gay. And she really embraced being a role model.

“Sometimes, particularly when you become more senior, you can be a little bit nervous about being a role model or perhaps you don’t want to be a role model because it can have a bit of a burden associated with it. But I always recall that person just doing a couple of articles in a magazine and on the intranet of the organisation, and just explicitly being themselves, nothing more than that.

“Ultimately in some ways it changed my life because it gave me the confidence that it’s okay to be a gay woman in this organisation.

“And therefore, I always had that in the back of my mind that – she may never know who I am – but what she did for me, I want to make sure I can do for others. Being that role model is something that might not always be comfortable but, particularly for folks who are in a leadership role and part of an underrepresented group, it’s a real moral obligation for us.”

Des Forges says taking on the D&I role within MoD was a “challenge and opportunity” she couldn’t turn down and a good fit for her background and interests.

She has worked in the areas of ethics and counter corruption for most of her career and says she has been involved in diversity and inclusion throughout, including previously being a gender and LGBT+ champion at the MoD.

After working in defence for several years, she could see that the department “was doing fantastic things but could be even better”.

“Defence has really gone through a period of reflection over the last few years, where we’ve recognised that we haven’t always delivered in terms of diversity and inclusion in the way we needed to, and a number of reports, be it the [Defence Committee] review of women in the armed forces or the Wigston review into unacceptable behaviours, have just reiterated that.”

Yet despite progress, she says: “The reality is we have some way to go in terms of diversity and, historically, we didn’t always hear diverse voices at the very top of decision making in defence. I am really passionate about making sure that we make the very best decisions for the nation. We therefore really need to have that diversity of thought, that diversity of challenge. So I was really attracted to the idea of helping to amplify those voices.

This, she says, has been a key theme of the directorate’s work in its first year – “making sure that those voices are being heard and not just heard, but really listened to and driving change”.

After repeated instances of inappropriate and allegedly unlawful behaviour by serving members of the UK armed forces, then-defence secretary Gavin Williamson commissioned an urgent report in April 2019. The Wigston report, published three months later, found an unacceptable level of inappropriate behaviour such as bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination, and a “sub-optimal” system for dealing with it. It also described a “white, middle-aged pack mentality” in the MoD.

Des Forges says this is “not something she experiences very much in defence” nowadays, but colleagues “can feel challenges and feel isolated and that their difference isn’t always recognised”.

“And I think the work that we are doing is actually helping people recognise the positivity of that difference,” she says.

“To take another area, for example: neurodiversity. I think there’s been a real awakening in defence to understand the value of neurodiversity, particularly in terms of where we are working in the grey zone or we’re working in cyber and data analysis and actually recognising the real strength that neurodiverse colleagues bring to defence in that space.”

Did the Wigston review shock her? Des Forges says she was more aware of the challenges than most, having provided support to Sir Mike Wigston in preparing his independent review and from conversations with colleagues in defence in her previous gender and LGBT+ champion roles.

“I had an understanding from talking to networks and folks across defence that there were some challenges,” she says.

“The scale of some of the challenges absolutely quite rightly shocked a lot of people in defence. There are undoubtedly some really difficult and harrowing stories, and defence is genuinely grateful [to those who came forward] and is listening and starting take action. And I think we will see a lot more in the next six months or so of that action happening.”

One thing that did surprise her when reading the Wigston report was the simplicity of some of the things that defence wasn’t getting right, such as the fact women in the armed forces were wearing body armour that was designed for men’s bodies.

“I looked at that and just thought: how have we got that wrong? We’ve now designed and are rolling out appropriately fitted combat uniform and body armour for our women so they can wear it comfortably, they’re better protected and they can find their weapons more effectively.”

A second report into the MoD published in July 2021 – the Defence Committee’s Women in the Armed Forces review – found women are not being protected by the MoD or helped to reach their full potential. It also highlighted serious problems with the military’s handling of sexual assault and harassment, which sometimes exacerbates trauma for victims.

Des Forges says her team has done a lot of work transforming the service complaint system and the service justice system, and the changes will come into effect soon.  

“That’s going to start changing the experience of complainants and victims or survivors of crime,” she says.

There is a lot more to fix, she adds, but she says a lot of the work done so far will begin to have an impact in the next six months.

Asked if she has seen or experienced first hand some of the behaviours mentioned in both reports, des Forges says: “When I first joined defence, I did find some slightly more old-fashioned views in place, and it did feel like I’d stepped back a little bit.

“But I would genuinely say that I’ve seen a real change just in the time I have been in the organisation, and that change wasn’t happening fast enough, but I think over the last 12 months in particular it’s really accelerated.

“That doesn’t mean that we don’t still have work to do. But I think that recognition of not just the change we need but the pace of change has really landed.”

But even a change of pace does not mean things will turn around overnight.

“One of the key pieces in Mike Wigston’s summing up was he said that if we are going to deliver culture change, it needs 10 years of continuous sustained effort. There is no silver bullet to change the culture and to move us, from a cultural perspective, to a world class organisation but we’re definitely on the journey.”

When she joined the department almost six years ago from Network Rail, she talked to colleagues in other parts of the government, some of whom asked: “Why are you joining defence?”

“And I said, well, I like a challenge, I’m sure it’ll be really interesting.”

The department has been accused of being stuck in the 1950s and not being representative of the nation but des Forges is proud to work at the MoD and says things have changed.

“I have never worked with such inspiring people doing such fantastic things as I have in defence. I’ve never worked in an organisation of such complexity but that is delivering such positive difference to the nation and overseas.

“I think a lot of those myths, and those concerns that people might have are pretty outdated now, and it’s exciting to be part of that change.”

Part of this change has been a significant increase in the last 12 months of defence staff – both civilian and military – “standing up and talking about diversity and inclusion in a way that they might not have been as comfortable doing previously”, and willing to be an ally and challenge historic ways of thinking, des Forges says.

“We still have some way to go but there’s a tangible difference. I regularly talk to colleagues from our diversity inclusion networks. A lot of them are starting to reflect that, while we’ve still got a way to go, things are feeling different.

“Looking at statistics and data is really important, but it’s also about hearing our people’s voices and saying: ‘Are the changes we’re making starting to make an actual difference?’ And hat has started to come through.”

Des Forges is the first ever director of D&I at the MoD. She says diversity and inclusion was seen as “genuinely important” before the directorate was set up but defence didn’t “recognise the scale of effort that was needed to bring us to the right place”.

“Before we set up the directorate, I think what we had was a lot of pockets of folks doing really good stuff, but they were a little bit isolated or at the risk of [working in] silos.”

The directorate brought a top-level focus, with governance and a programmatic approach, she says.

“We’re holding people to account for the first time and saying these are the changes you need to deliver.”

The D&I directorate has also helped to amplify the voice of staff and challenge those at the top of defence, des Forges says.

“We engage with the networks – we hear the actual experience of folks on an everyday basis who say to us, ‘I can’t shoot properly because my body armour is wrong’, or ‘I’m experiencing unacceptable behaviours’, or I don’t feel I’ve been fairly dealt with’.

The D&I directorate then builds on that feedback, improving systems but also challenging the status quo.

“We play quite a strong challenge function, not only in terms of holding to account, but also sometimes sitting in the room with senior leaders and saying, ‘do you know what, this isn’t good enough – we need to do more, and faster’. And I think what we have seen is a real move to grip this now and we’re seeing a lot more work being driven by the services themselves.”

Des Forges’ goal is for defence to become a world leading organisation for diversity and inclusion.
“That is what will make us the best Army, the best RAF, the best Navy and the best civil service,” she says.

“I absolutely think we can get there. When we give defence a challenge, time and time again it steps up to it. So I have no doubt that we will achieve that.”

And ultimately, she wants to be able to lay down her metaphorical sword and shield. “I think a true test of our success is that ultimately the D&I directorate won’t be needed anymore, because it will be embedded in everything that we do. So actually, our job is to do ourselves out of a job.” 

Des Forges on... taking her private sector experience into the public sector

Having worked at EY for 15 years before she joined the civil service, des Forges brought bundles of private sector experience into the Ministry of Defence.

“It really helped me and I think there’s real value in moving between the civil service and private sector. There’s a lot I’ve learned coming into the civil service, but equally a lot I’ve managed to bring from the private sector.

“While I was working in consultancy, I worked across a whole range of industries, which just gave me that breadth of understanding of how lots of different organisations address different policies, and different approaches. And I think that was really helpful.

“But also I think there’s something really interesting about that continued focus on the service that we’re delivering in the defence of the nation and that sort of ethos in private sector that really drives you in a very different way.

“I think one thing that is sometimes a challenge is pace. In the private sector, things sometimes feel like they work to a faster pace, but also I’ve reflected over the years that the changes that we’re delivering in government are so significant that we need to absolutely make sure that what we are doing is really well thought out.

“And actually we are working at huge pace, but it might not necessarily seem like it from the outside. So I think there’s just different perceptions.”

Des Forges is also using her private sector experience to help ensure improvement does not stagnate.

One thing she has brought in is something she says was drilled into her in business: having a feedback loop and focus on continuous improvement.

Delivering the D&I programme over the next six months and then getting a feedback loop going to continuously improve upon that is when “folk across defence start to feel the difference”, she says.

“If we just sit back and go, right, we’ve put those changes through and we fold our arms, ‘job done’, then we’re going to find ourselves in a similar situation in five or 10 years’ time.”


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