“Colour, creed, age and who you sleep with all become irrelevant when you’re both being shot at.” (Captain Michael Fry, quoted in The Independent, 2011). As Remembrance Day approaches, we take a look at how the British military is conquering the war on prejudice.

For a small island, Britain packs a pretty mean punch, and its global influence is undeniable. For the most part, we are a country that leads rather than follows, and this is most certainly the case when it comes to human rights issues. All the more surprising therefore, that it took our military services until January 2000 to allow openly gay soldiers to serve. Prior to this, reporting on sexual orientation in the armed forces meant something very sinister. It meant informing on colleagues for the suspected ‘crime’ of homosexuality. It meant degrading interrogations and investigations by the SIB (Special Investigation Branch), and ultimately it led to discharge from duty. Nowadays, the notion of reporting refers simply to the recently introduced practice of monitoring sexual orientation in the military in order to promote inclusion and acceptance of all LGBT personnel.

In September 1999, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that discharging LGBT servicemen and women because of their sexuality was a breach of their human rights. The archaic ban on homosexuality in the armed forces was lifted on January 12th 2000, and this set the wheels in motion for one of the most impressive corporate culture u-turns of the modern era. At the time it was thought that shifting such entrenched, institutionalised attitudes in an organisation of this scale must surely be akin to asking a freight train driver to perform an emergency stop. Many people questioned whether anything would ever truly change.

Yet, the MoD did what it does best. It went forth and conquered, arguably at quite an impressive pace. Prior to January 2000, the armed forces policy and guidelines stated that homosexuality was incompatible with military life and would “cause offence, polarise relationships, induce ill-discipline and damage morale and unit effectiveness”. Overnight, the ECHR ruling changed everything, with service personnel suddenly able to freely talk about their sexual orientation without fear of reprisal. Officers who had previously been encouraged to root out homosexuality in the ranks by informing on their fellow service men and women, were now expected to act with respect and acceptance towards their colleagues, regardless of sexual orientation.

So, how has the MoD managed such a striking shift in attitude, moving from institutional homophobia, at one extreme, to flying the rainbow flag, at the other? Ruth Hunt, chief executive of Stonewall commends the work that the armed forces have done since 2000, saying that “[they] are now embedding change at every level, whether in equality and diversity training, policy wording, community engagement or support from senior leaders. It’s a fantastic example of a group accepting mistakes that were made and taking impressive and active steps in improving what they do”.

The armed forces now openly advertise for recruits in gay media outlets. Service personnel march in uniform at the Gay Pride event, and many individual service men and women are listed in The Independent’s Pink List of the most influential gay and lesbian people in Britain. The Royal Navy has allowed gay sailors to hold civil partnership ceremonies on board ships, and married quarters are now re-named Service Family Accommodation, with rights extended to homosexual couples. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Ministry of Defence have, in recent years, all been listed as a Top 100 Employer in the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index. And each of the services actively promotes their LGBT employee networks via social media platforms, such as Twitter. In 2007, the MoD even issued a formal apology for its treatment of gays and lesbians.

Whilst the MoD’s LGBT stance has received the most column inches in recent years, it is important not to let this overshadow their agenda regarding other diversity groups within the armed forces. Like any other organisation, the military has obligations towards the fair and equal treatment of all minority groups, and, with the added complications of a strict hierarchy, it is the everyday actions of the senior ranking staff that will set the tone for what is and is not acceptable behaviour, and what does and does not constitute true comradeship.

Since his re-election to Number 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister has set some very clear and precise targets. Speaking in the House of Commons in July of this year, Penny Mourdant (Armed Forces Minister) confirmed that, “The Prime Minister has made a clear commitment to have at least 10% of armed forces recruits from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds by 2020. Increasing the diversity of our workforce is an operational imperative, which is why we have set up a diversity programme. Each service has developed a range of initiatives to achieve this aim. An increasing defence budget and the regeneration of our capabilities will be an attractive proposition to any potential recruit, no matter what background they come from”. Statistics for the 12-month period ending September 2014 show BAME intake to UK Regular Forces at 6%, and in a state of steady decline over the three years prior.

By contrast, gender statistics show a more positive picture, rising steadily over the same three-year period to a 10.1% intake of females. (Source: Defence Statistics: Tri-Service).  Yet there still remains the thorny issue of whether or not women should serve on the front line.  Whilst female representation in the military may be on the increase, women are still currently excluded from serving in roles where the primary aim is “to close with and kill the enemy”. EU law requires a review of this policy by 2018, but last year, as Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, called for action more immediately, with a view to women being deployed to front line roles as early as 2016. “The image of the military is still a macho image – the last bastion of male chauvinism”, he said, “The reality is very different. I am looking for a way forward that signals the Army’s openness to all who can meet the standards required.”

Tremendous progress has been made by the MoD since the turn of the millennium, most notably in the area of LGBT. As with any organisation, there is always room for continued improvement, but in the words of Mandy McBain, a Client Account Manager at Stonewall, who served for 25 years in the Royal Navy, “If the military can make this type of progress from a standing start, any organisation can. The services operate in a unique and often challenging working environment where people can be together 24/7. They can’t leave, go home and simply shut the front door – acceptance is essential. And the great thing is when done correctly, it works.” (The Guardian, June 2015).

Employers can learn some valuable lessons from the military’s progress on sexual orientation inclusivity. We should all watch with interest to see whether the MoD can blaze a similar trail in relation to ethnic recruitment targets as well as female representation on the front line.  But if past performance is a reliable indicator of future capability, the signs are certainly positive.

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