‘Toxic’ culture at MoD: Sixty female senior civil servants complain to perm sec

Reports of women being “propositioned”, “groped” and “touched repeatedly”
Photo: Robert Evans/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

17 Nov 2023

Sixty female senior civil servants at the Ministry of Defence have made allegations of sexual assault, harassment and abuse in the department.

They complained of a “hostile” and “toxic” culture in a letter to permanent secretary David Williams.

The letter, sent last month, included anonymised testimonies in which women described personal experiences including being “propositioned”, “groped” and “touched repeatedly” by male colleagues at the MoD.

The senior officials described the workplace culture as “hostile to women as equal and respected partners” and 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”, in the letter seen by The Guardian.

Most of the alleged incidents set out in the letter, which come from “senior civilian women in operational and security roles”, are described as being “very recent”.

They 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”;
  • 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; and
  • Accounts of feeling uncomfortable and unsafe while working at the MoD’s headquarters, known as Main Building, in Whitehall.

Women also described a “male-dominated” work environment where women are 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 letter, also sent to a board-level human resources committee, called for immediate action to reform the department’s policies and address its culture. They also said there should be “external intervention”, describing the department’s complaints system as “not fit for purpose”.

Williams sent a letter of response, also seen by The Guardian, on 5 October, in which said he was “disappointed and appalled” by the testimonies and the issues raised were “being taken seriously and will be acted on”.

Responding to the report, the FDA union called for the MoD to launch an investigation.

FDA national officer Gareth Hills said: “The accounts of these women’s experiences are deeply worrying. Everyone has the right to be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace. The MoD must now take action, including an immediate investigation of these allegations. The FDA, along with other unions representing staff at the MoD, has requested an urgent meeting with the permanent secretary to discuss this.”

An MoD spokesperson 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.”

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