60% of women in the defence sector say they have been sexually harassed at work

8 February 2024

Trigger warning: this story discusses sexual assault and rape.

Nearly 60% of women surveyed by Prospect who work in the defence sector have experienced sexual harassment at work.

This includes 61% of those working at the Ministry of Defence (MoD), 60% in MoD agencies or arm’s length bodies, and 47% in the private sector. Similar proportions have witnessed sexual harassment.

Prospect trade union surveyed its women members working in the defence industry to assess their experience of sexual harassment in the workplace with 308 total respondents.

Members reported:

  • Being raped and sexually assaulted in the workplace
  • Receiving an unsolicited photo of a colleague’s penis
  • Unwanted sexual advances – including from mentors
  • Insults relating to their appearance and sexuality
  • A lack of repercussions for offenders

Over the past year, 75% of those who responded had witnessed or experienced sexual harassment at least once a month with around 8% weekly, and almost 4% on a daily basis. In the MoD around a third (32%) witnessed or experienced such behaviours several times a month (24% in agencies), more than 5% once or twice weekly (7% in agencies), and 4% on a daily basis (2% in agencies).

Nearly a third of respondents (32%) reported experiencing direct touching, one in five receive unwanted messages by text or email (19%) and nearly one in ten have been sexually assaulted (7%). 11% of respondents working for the MoD say they have been sexually assaulted in a work-related setting.

45% of respondents working in the MoD have been sexually harassed by someone in a military grade. This is also a problem in employers with less interaction with military grades – 18% in MoD agencies and 15% in the private sector. The extent of the problem of sexual harassment in the armed forces has been well documented.  What this survey shows is that civilian staff working with military personnel are likely to be on the receiving end of the toxic culture prevalent in the armed forces.

Attitudes appear to be worst in the MoD, with 73% of respondents working there agreeing that behaviors that would be considered toxic and inappropriate in public life are tolerated in the defence sector. This compares to 64% in agencies and 61% in the private sector. Worryingly 58% of respondents at the MoD are not confident that employers in the defence sector are taking effective action to deter sexual harassment at work. This compares to 54% in agencies and 47% in the private sector.

Sue Ferns, Senior Deputy General Secretary of Prospect, said:

“These are extremely worrying findings which demonstrate just how bad sexual harassment is in the defence sector and particularly in the MoD. It is absolutely clear that this type of toxic behaviour is seen to be tolerated by employers and often left unpunished.

“All employers, but especially those in the public sector which should be setting an example, should be doing everything they can to root out this type of serious misconduct. It must be made absolutely clear from the very top that there will be zero tolerance of sexual harassment, backed up by concrete action.

“Bad behaviour thrives in an environment where it is tolerated. Nothing short of a wholesale culture change is required. It’s time the MoD and other employers worked properly with trade unions to stamp this out.”


Direct testimony from members

  • “I have had my leg touched in the office by someone who was meant to be a mentor, he also shared inappropriate images and had a nickname about being creepy across numerous departments.” (MoD)
  • “I shared an office with my male line manager and this senior man kept coming into the office when my line manager was out and making suggestive remarks. One day he cornered me in the office and tried to touch me. I pushed him away and he left. I then told my line manager who spoke to this man. This man had done this to many other women and had been reported. But, today, this man/offender is head of the profession where I work.” (MoD/Agency)
  • “I have had to physically pull a colleague who was much larger and stronger than me off a female colleague. Because he was so strong I had to scratch and hit him to try and get him off, throughout this my female colleague was crying and grasping for my hand. It was quite traumatising for the both of us, we were 19/20 years old at the time. When I told my manager about this she discouraged me from reporting it formally, and being so new to the organisation I trusted her so took it no further. My manager also suggested that to avoid any awkwardness that I should not attend a career enhancing work event that was taking place the following week as he was leading on it. (For completeness, I didn’t see why I should be disadvantaged for his behaviour so I attended anyway.). This is probably the worst thing I’ve experienced whilst working for the ministry of defence, alongside countless unwanted comments that have ranged from irritating to making me feel unsafe and unworthy of my position.”
  • “Have received an unwanted photo of a male colleague’s penis.” (MoD agency or other public sector organisation)
  • “I have been personally belittled, had negative comments about my physical appearance and manner of dress, had “you must be gay then” comments when I have rejected sexual advances, and had negative comments and assumptions made about my professional capabilities and competence both to my face and to other colleagues behind my back.” (MoD agency or other public sector organisation)

MoD reported to EHRC

  • Prospect has reported the MoD to the EHRC, asking it to investigate the MoD’s compliance with the Public Sector Equality Duty.

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