It was only a year ago that the UK government lifted the ban on women serving in ground close combat roles. For the first time, women became eligible to serve in all areas of the armed forces. Women in combat became a reality.
Now planning is underway to open up roles for women in the Army, Royal Marines and Royal Air Force Regiment by the end of 2018. The planning will also coincide with a five-year research programme looking at the physiological impact of combat roles on both men and women.
The lifting of this gender restriction signalled the end for the last formal barrier to women’s formal participation in the UK military. In reality, though, it’s only the first step in a long journey towards genuine gender equality in our armed forces. And while the military might sound like an extreme case, many other public bodies – as well as private companies – face similar challenges to truly integrate women into their workforce.
Here are some lessons that businesses from all sectors can learn from the ongoing challenges faced by the UK military.
Hiring Women – Challenging Gender Discrimination
Military recruitment campaigns need to be specifically targeted at women. There is a need to allow women to see themselves in those roles. Outreach opportunities should be considered for girls and young women. This applies to any industry looking to increase levels of female representation. Current examples of this include the WISE campaign, which aims to increase the participation, contribution and success of women in technology and other STEM industries.
Recruiters also need to carefully consider their use of language in job descriptions and adverts. This includes avoiding gendered language and other examples of subtle or unconscious bias against women candidates. Taking the Royal Marines as one example, they may want to think about reframing their value of ‘brotherhood’ to be more inclusive to women.
Promoting Women – Reshaping Performance Management and Career Progression
Similarly, performance criteria are often written with male leadership qualities in mind. There is widespread evidence of gender bias when it comes to assessing qualities. One recent study highlights how both men and women preferring the CV of a John compared to a Jennifer despite the exact same content.
Selection and promotion boards need to recognise that women may display leadership qualities differently to men. Women may also be less confident in putting themselves forward for promotion. A 2016 BBC/ComRes survey, for example, showed that while 68% of men feel comfortable seeking a workplace promotion, the equivalent figure for women falls to just 56%. Likewise, the 30 Per Cent Club reports that only 43% of women think being promoted to a top executive will significantly improve their ability to impact the business, compared to 51% of men.
Clearly, there is more work to be done when it comes to creating new models of inclusive leadership.
Championing Women in Combat – Female Role Models
The military has already recognised the importance of having role models for women in combat roles. Accepting officers into these roles before open recruitment is a clear marker to lay down.
Women’s networks and mentoring, which sit outside of the normal chain of line management, will be critical to providing support and advice for women throughout their careers. This applies to any company looking to better engage its female employees. Setting up an Employee Resource Group for women staff is a strong place to start.
Supporting Women at Work – Tackling Discrimination, Bullying and Harassment
Women – and other minority groups – experience discrimination, bullying and harassment in different ways to the existing workforce. And they will have different considerations when thinking about reporting illegal or inappropriate behaviour.
In the military, existing policies, procedures and approaches will need to be adapted to ensure women’s safety at work. Such close consideration of company policy and strategy should always be at the forefront of any business leaders’ minds as they seek to build more inclusive cultures at work.
Creating a No-Blame Culture
The importance of educating the existing workforce cannot be over-emphasised. Organisations need to have a leadership culture that allows people to admit mistakes and ask questions. Blanket bans on language and behaviours risk driving such behaviours and attitudes underground. Leaders should instead aim to help people accept and understand the new situation and the implications of their actions.
Clearly, illegal or dangerous behaviours cannot be tolerated. But genuine mistakes over, for example, using ‘girls’ rather than ‘women’ must be met with empathy and education rather than draconian measures. Investing in learning and development around diversity and inclusion – be it for all staff or targeted at line managers or senior leaders – is a key consideration in this debate over appropriate workplace behaviour. This is especially true given the implications (and costs) of getting it wrong.
These cultural changes will take time, but in the end they are critical to ensuring the long-term success of a gender-equal, inclusive workforce.