Surviving the army as a woman
Kate Medina, author and former Territorial Army Officer, describes her struggle for respect in the male dominated world of the British Army.
Surviving the army as a woman
Posted on: Thu 05-May-16 15:39:02
(3 comments )
I started off my working life, aged twenty-one, the only woman managing the mixing plant at a glass-making factory in Liverpool. The factory manager, my direct boss, had pages torn out from soft-porn magazines taped to the wall above his desk, so that each time I met with him to discuss business, I was assailed by splayed female bodies. Such overt sexism wouldn't be allowed in a business environment these days, but overtly sexualised attitudes towards women do still persist in many heavily male dominated environments, including the army.
I think it is the aspect of my personality that would be described in army-speak as 'gung-ho', that led me to leap headlong into another bastion of male domination, the Territorial Army, and it is the same aspect of my personality that enabled me to not only survive, but to thrive in that environment.
I was an officer trainee for two years, won my unit's award as Best Woman Officer Cadet and was selected to go to Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, to be commissioned as an Officer in the TA. When I came out, I was given command of my own troop in the Royal Engineers, a troop that again raised, with a startling sense of déjà vu, the issue of being the only woman in charge of thirty men that I had first encountered back in the mixing plant.
An extensive new study commissioned by the chief of the general staff Gen Sir Nick Carter into the scale of sexual harassment in the British Army found that 19 per cent of women had received unwelcome sexual gestures, while 36 per cent had seen sexually explicit material (such as porn or naked calendars) that they found offensive and six per cent had been deliberately sent such material. Gen Sir Nick Carter concluded that the army has "an overly sexualised culture in which inappropriate behaviour is deemed acceptable". A recent Freedom of Information Request found that in the three years between 2011 and 2013 there were 75 allegations of rape and 150 of sexual assault.
From a psychologist's point of view, any institution where there is a big imbalance in number of men and women, combined with working in isolated areas, a drinking culture, high value placed on loyalty and a rigid hierarchy is rife for sexual abuse.
One of my most pervasive memories of my overwhelmingly positive time in the TA, was being made to watch – made in the sense that it was the middle of winter at an isolated barracks and there was nowhere else to go – a very hardcore porn movie, with a baying pack of young male TA soldiers
Sexual abuse in the army is in the news again as the historic deaths of four young soldiers at Deepcut Barracks, between 1995 and 2002 amid claims of bullying and abuse. The deaths have been dismissed as suicide, even though one of the soldiers was shot in the head twice – each wound a fatal one. It was only the continued efforts of the teenagers' families over the intervening years to get justice served that another inquest is being held into the death of Private Cheryl James, aged eighteen. However, the coroner has refused a request from the family's QC to look at allegations of a culture of sexual abuse at Deepcut base and the sexually inappropriate treatment of young females within the chain of command.
One of my most pervasive memories of my overwhelmingly positive time in the TA, was being made to watch – made in the sense that it was the middle of winter at an isolated barracks and there was nowhere else to go – a very hardcore porn movie, with a baying pack of young male TA soldiers, and a smattering of other young women, who, like myself, stood at the back of the room, utterly humiliated, trying and failing to blend in to the furniture.
Another was of 'fun games' that ended in one of my fellow female officer trainees being pinned to the floor by a group of male soldiers, having her combat trousers ripped off and squirty cream squirted into her knickers. I still castigate myself for not intervening and defending her, and my only excuse is that it was very early on in my time in the TA, I was young, overwhelmed, and frankly, I didn't have the guts to separate myself from the crowd and intervene.
To not only survive, but to thrive in a male dominated environment, I learnt a number of things:
Don't try to be one of the lads, because you are not, and they won't ever accept you as one. It can be hard to work out how to 'fit in', but what I found worked best was to be friendly, professional, but also to be slightly stand-offish. Men will accept you as a highly competent, capable, woman who gets on with the job, has a sense of humour and doesn't moan, but they won't accept you as one of them. As Marilyn Monroe said, "I don't mind living in a man's world as long as I can be a woman in it". Sensible lady!
Have a sense of humour and don't take banter to heart – this is vital. Men in packs love to tease each other and you, and if you can't take banter, some of which can be quite personal and to be frank, nasty, you will hate the environment, and everyone there will hate working with you.
There is little room for self-doubt in male dominated professions and particularly in macho ones like the army. Nobody is going to help to build your confidence, or give you the benefit of the doubt, so if you don't feel confident, pretend until you do.
Contradict the 'female stereotype'. Men in macho environments have expectations about women based on stereotypes, and to survive in those environments you need to be the antithesis of that 'weak woman' stereotype – a stereotype that has rarely been represented by any of the women I know. Work harder, be better, be braver and never moan or be feeble. You shouldn't have to do all these things to be successful, but unfortunately you do.
Women have a tendency to agree, to be nice in a way that men don't. Men won't respect a woman for being too nice, but they will respect her for being right.
Always do your best. To be perceived as being as good as men, women in male dominated environments usually have to be better – harder working and more capable. This shouldn't be the case, but unfortunately it usually is.
As a woman in a male dominated environment, you have to develop a thick skin and take everything with a very large pinch of salt, which is what my natural personality traits predisposed me to do - and the rest, I learnt.
However, for a young person, as I was, these things are easy to say and hard to enact. I was lucky in that the experience I had was more positive than negative, but from my time in the TA I can understand how the opposite easily becomes true.
Kate's new book Fire Damage (A Jessie Flynn Investigation) is published by Harper Collins and is available from Amazon.
By Kate Medina
This is of great interest to me as my bright and beautiful 13-year-old GD has, this year, joined the Army Cadets. She is loving it and is already working towards her Duke of Edinburgh Award. She is also a Scout, so obviously not afraid to be in the boys' world. I hope that nothing happens to disillusion her. A very interesting book I read (might have been a Kindle 'daily deal') was 'An Officer and a Gentlewoman'
by Heloise Goodley who survived the gruelling exercises at Sandhurst and was, I think, a Major at the time her book was published.
DH served on one of the first Royal Navy ships to have females at sea. The most senior officers thought it was great to be at the forefront of this new initiative but it wasn't long before there were problems. Unsuitable relationships developed and some of the men found it difficult to adjust to women being around. The girls who settled best were the ones who drank hard, swore like troupers and generally had a 'blokish' attitude. There have been recent programmes on TV about trainees in both the Navy and the Army which have shown girls struggling with the training, in some cases not realising what would be required of them. It is a very hard life and only the toughest get through.