Survey paints damning picture of sexual harassment in MoD

Union says 61% of female respondents report being victims, with “toxic” behaviours tolerated in the defence sector

By Jim Dunton

09 Feb 2024

Civil service union Prospect has published survey results that it says demonstrate sexual harassment is “seen to be tolerated by employers and often left unpunished” in the defence sector, with the Ministry of Defence the major problem area.

Prospect, which represents professionals such as scientists and engineers, surveyed female members in the MoD, its agencies and arm’s-length bodies, and non-government parts of the defence sector.

It said 61% of those working at the MoD said they had experienced sexual harassment at work, compared with 60% at agencies or ALBs and 47% in the private sector.

Prospect said a total of 308 responses were received to the survey. Some members reported being raped and sexually assaulted in the workplace; receiving unsolicited photos of colleagues’ genitalia; unwanted sexual advances, including from mentors; and a lack of repercussions for offenders.

Eleven percent of respondents who work at the MoD said they had been sexually assaulted in a work-related setting.

Anonymous testimonies from Prospect members who took part in the survey ranged from personal experiences of groping, sexting and belittlement to one staff member who gave an account of having to physically fight off a male colleague who was attacking a female colleague.

“Because he was so strong, I had to scratch and hit him to try and get him off,” she said. “Throughout this my female colleague was crying and grasping for my hand. It was quite traumatising for the both of us – we were 19/20 years old at the time.

“When I told my manager about this, she discouraged me from reporting it formally, and being so new to the organisation I trusted her so took it no further. My manager also suggested that to avoid any awkwardness that I should not attend a career-enhancing work event that was taking place the following week as he was leading on it.”

In November last year, 60 female senior civil servants published an open letter about sexual harassment in the MoD. Last month, Prospect asked the Equality and Human Rights Commission to look into whether the department is failing in its Public Sector Equality Duty.

In the just-published survey, 45% of respondents who work at the MoD said they had been sexually harassed by someone in a military grade. At agencies and ALBs the figure was 18%; in the private sector it was 15%.

Prospect said the problem of sexual harassment in the armed forces had been well documented, but the survey showed civilian staff working with military personnel were likely to be on the receiving end of the same “toxic culture”.

The union said that 73% of respondents at the MoD felt behaviours that would be considered “toxic and inappropriate in public life” were tolerated in the defence sector.

More than half of the MoD and agency staff who took part in the survey said they were not confident that their employers were taking effective action to deter sexual harassment at work. Just under half of those working in non-public parts of the defence sector said the same thing.

Prospect  deputy general secretary Sue Ferns said the survey findings were “extremely worrying” and demonstrated the severity of defence-sector’s problems with sexual harassment, particularly within the MoD.

“It is absolutely clear that this type of toxic behaviour is seen to be tolerated by employers and often left unpunished,” she said.

“All employers, but especially those in the public sector which should be setting an example, should be doing everything they can to root out this type of serious misconduct. It must be made absolutely clear from the very top that there will be zero tolerance of sexual harassment, backed up by concrete action.

“Bad behaviour thrives in an environment where it is tolerated. Nothing short of a wholesale culture change is required. It’s time the MoD and other employers worked properly with trade unions to stamp this out.”

An MoD spokesperson said: “Sexual harassment is completely unacceptable, and we are committed to stamping it out wherever it is found.

“We encourage anyone who has experienced or witnessed this kind of inexcusable conduct to report it immediately.

“As part of our plan to address instances of unacceptable behaviour, we launched a review of our complaints procedure in consultation with external bodies, including trade unions who are able to input.”

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