Ministry of Defence needs own ‘everyday sexism project’ to combat alpha-male culture

Chair of department’s women’s network calls on male staff across the civil service to act as allies to feminist cause

Ministry of Defence Photo: PA

By Tamsin Rutter

27 Sep 2017

The chair of the Ministry of Defence women’s network has said she wants the department to adopt its own “everyday sexism project”, to combat what some employees describe as “an alpha-male culture”.

Alison Titchener told Civil Service World that her colleague in the security policy and operations team had applied for funding to launch the campaign. Titchener said she would be pushing for it to span the MoD and eventually copied by other departments.

The everyday sexism project, founded by writer Laura Bates, is a website cataloguing instances of sexist behaviour experienced on a daily basis, from the minor to the outrageous.


In a breakout discussion at the Women into Leadership conference in London on 20 September, Titchener spoke about the role of “men as allies” in the campaign for gender equality, alongside Ravi Chand, HR director of workplace management at HM Revenue and Customs.

Chand called on female civil servants to seek out – and act as – not just mentors but sponsors, saying that a study done while he was at the Home Office revealed that male high achievers were getting ahead because other, more senior men were opening doors for them.

A sponsor acts as someone’s workplace champion by helping them go to the right meetings or meet the right people, differing from a mentor who generally just offers career direction and advice.

Chand said he had found that men disproportionately benefit from sponsorship, sometimes unconsciously, and that he had often challenged senior leaders to “think about women in the organisation for whom” they could offer such help as well.

Much of the discussion focused on the MoD, which comes second only to the Foreign Office in terms of the low share of women it has in senior roles – 27%, according to a report produced last year by consultancy EY.

While the gender split is relatively equal on the civilian side, the “statistics plummet through the floor” when you include the military, said Nick Pett, a senior civil servant currently studying at the Royal College of Defence Studies, also on the panel. 

He said most units in the MoD main building are made up of joint military-civilian teams, and was critical of the department’s workplace culture.

“There is a skewed perspective about what constitutes the right kinds of behaviours for leadership positions,” he said, “and they are all stereotypically masculine behaviours.”

Pett said male civil servants should call out the sexist or inappropriate language and behaviour used by other men, particularly in organisations in which women are under-represented.

“I think it’s worth recognising that they may not listen to you [as women],” he added.

But he conceded that a lot of sexism is “subtle and pernicious” and that consistently calling it out can have a heavy mental and emotional toll.

Titchener – a policy and litigation manager at the department who reverse mentors Stephen Lovegrove, the department’s “six-foot seven... white, male” permanent secretary – spoke of the perm sec's shock when she told him how she was made to feel “like a girl” on her first day of work, being stared at as she walked through the MoD entrance area. 

“He had no idea that I could be in such a vulnerable position in our pillared hall,” she said, and later told CSW that he has since commissioned a department-wide gender culture survey, which is to be delivered shortly.

On the importance of flexible working, she said that senior leaders of both genders need to champion it, and praised the men in her department who have “hard finishes” in their calendars, and are unafraid to have a diary entry that reads: “Picking ‘X’ up from nursery”.

Pett agreed, pointing to the role of technology in reducing bureaucracy and the number of daily tasks. 

“There are different ways of doing things, you don’t need to work in a stereotypically alpha-male way," he said.

He also encouraged men across the civil service to get involved with the UN's #HeForShe campaign, famously launched by actor Emma Watson in 2014 with the goal of encouraging men and boys to take action against negative inequalities faced by women and girls.

It is important that more male leaders act as advocates for gender equality and seek to affect change in their organisations, Pett added.

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