The Secretary of State for Defence, Phillip Hammond, has ordered a review into whether women should become eligible to serve in combat roles in the British Army.
The review been brought forward, Mr Hammond says, because he feels the exclusion of women from these roles sends the wrong message about equality in the forces. One must assume that this is at least in part influenced by the worrying levels of sexual harassment that have been reported on in recent months.
The concerns were highlighted in the Service Complaints Commissioner’s latest report , which identified barriers that still exist in the handling of complaints of sexual harassment and sexual assault, and in the coroner’s remarks at the inquest into the death of Anne-Marie Ellement: he pointed to a “lack of coordination and imagination” from the MoD in managing vulnerable personnel who had made an allegation of rape or harassment.
These institutional problems must lead to those who feel aggrieved by the presence of women in the military thinking that they are not sure to be punished. This, I think, is a major perpetuating factor. While I welcome an enquiry into whether women should serve in combat, I look forward to a very careful sifting of the evidence on whether the fact that they are not already doing so really is also contributing to sexism in the forces.
We need to remember that women are already serving in visibly demanding and dangerous roles – as fighter pilots, for example, and medics in the MERTs (Medical Emergency Response Teams) – while many men in the forces, including the harassers, do not see action in combat.