The British Army needs its own #MeToo moment to address all past and present cases of sexual assault, harassment and everyday sexism, a long-serving female officer has said.
Lieutenant Colonel Diane Allen, who resigned in February, revealed she was part of a private outpouring of grievances aired by female officers in a closed online forum, triggered by the 2017 revelations about disgraced Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein.
The #MeToo movement became a way for women to share their experiences of sexual misconduct on social media following the Weinstein scandal.
“That evening I sat there for four hours. I was riveted. I was reading every post coming in,” Lt Col Allen, 55, told Sky News, describing the online chat between dozens of serving and former servicewomen about harassment and discrimination in the military.
“It was an outpouring of everything that had happened in their careers. It was the full spectrum [of complaints],” the retired officer added.
This included alleged harassment, sexist remarks and discrimination.
“It galvanised me. It made me realise that there is a story that does need to be told,” Lt Col Allen said.
“I would certainly love for the army to have its #MeToo moment and just acknowledge what happened and move on; move on to where we are today and accept this is part of our history.
“But I don’t think we can do that unless we are willing to address it.”
Lt Col Allen has decided to speak publicly for the first time about her personal experiences in the army, which include an alleged attempt by drunken male soldiers to break down her bedroom door one night in the 1990s – and an allegation that she was passed over for promotion just three years ago – in part – because of her gender.
“It is not the whole military that is the problem,” she said.
“It is the feral packs that we can’t control and we don’t actually deal with those groups, so when it does go wrong, it can go very wrong.”
Lt Col Allen is publishing a book, entitled Forewarned, that documents her journey through the armed forces from 1983, when she was part of the first intake of female officer cadets to train alongside men at the army’s officer training academy at Sandhurst.
She was commissioned into the regular army, but switched to becoming a reservist a few years later – spending the majority of her 30-year military career in the Intelligence Corps.
Much has changed for the better for servicewomen in that time, Lt Col Allen says, but she believes there is still much more to do.
She is urging other servicewomen – current and former – who have experienced sexual harassment, assault or discrimination during their time in uniform to contact her via her website – www.forewarned.uk – to contribute to her mission to fight for change.
“I would genuinely love for people at this stage to contact me in confidence,” Lt Col Allen said.
Of the online forum she witnessed, she said it “was one closed group and it absolutely broke my heart to see the extent of problems, not just women in the past but that are currently still happening”.
“Please come to me, tell your stories, we will capture them,” she said.
“Let’s just own the journey we have had as women in the army.”
Her hope is to help the army to improve and to break the power held by what she describes in her book as a “toxic cohort of senior, misogynistic, white, middle-class males”.
She already has testimonies from a number of women that include an allegation by a junior officer of rape by a senior officer.
Lt Col Allen also says a number of ex-servicewomen have alleged that they were encouraged not to put sexual discrimination and harassment down as a reason for leaving because that would require a lengthy investigation, which could delay their departure date – so the officers left that box unticked.
An annual armed forces survey published this month revealed that 12% of all service personnel say they have suffered from bullying, discrimination or harassment in the past year.
Of those, 90% chose not to make a formal complaint – primarily because they did not believe anything would be done and feared it might adversely affect their career.
Last July, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) pledged a “range of new measures” to tackle what it described as “inappropriate behaviour” in the military, following the publication of an official review into sexual offences, bullying and other wrongdoing.
Almost a year later, the central measure – to set up a new body that would oversee improvements and play a role in investigating allegations – has not yet been established.
That will only happen once a review of the service complaints system is completed, the MoD told Sky News, without giving a timetable.
Asked about the allegations raised by Lt Col Allen, an MoD spokesperson said: “We take allegations of this nature very seriously and have robust measures in place to address any inappropriate behaviour.
“Sexual harassment is not tolerated in the UK Armed Forces and we urge anyone who has experienced such behaviour, whether serving or veteran, to come forward.
“Last year we published the Wigston Report and have a dedicated team to implement the recommendations and review progress against all inappropriate behaviour in the Armed Forces.”
For the most part, Lt Col Allen loved her military career, which culminated in receiving an OBE from the Queen in recognition for her work as a reservist in the Intelligence Corps.
She had chosen to join the army as a teenager in 1983 because it sounded like an interesting challenge and she was keen to leave home.
Tall, strong and sporty; she was well suited to army life, although she recalls the problems she and the other female officer cadets encountered during those first days at Sandhurst, where they were provided with ill-fitting uniforms and boots that were several sizes too big.
In lessons they were excluded from certain activities not deemed suitable for women, such as tactics – instead being told to stand and watch as their male counterparts did the thinking.
Lt Col Allen said it was a different era.
A newspaper article on female cadets at Sandhurst was headlined – “Petticoat pass-out”.
Sexism was part of life and the women generally tolerated it without complaint.
Female soldiers were in what was then called the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) – they are now fully integrated into the army, including in all combat roles.
“The WRAC might have an official definition but the blokes would call it either Warm Round And Cuddly or a rack, which is something you screw against a wall,” Lieutenant Colonel Allen said.
“That is the kind of language you got it terms of how women were seen.
“But this isn’t for all cases… Most of the officers, and solders were very positive.”
A particularly bad experience she had, however, was in the early 1990s, when she was asked to instruct a group of infantrymen for a week on a dry ski slope at a military base.
She was a qualified ski instructor, and the then-junior officer was the only female on the base. She recalled how each day the men she was instructing would ask her if she wanted to come to the bar with them in the evening.
She would decline and retire to her room, also on the base.
“By the end of the week, knowing it was the last night, they were using those lovely words you get of: ‘frigid’, ‘b****’, ‘won’t come to the bar’, ‘too good for us’… that type thing, but you are used to this stuff,” she said, speaking in a matter-of-fact way.
Sensing potential trouble, she decided to take pre-emptive action.
“Instead of going to the room which I’d been allocated all week, I just took my sleeping gear and went to the room opposite, which was empty, and went to sleep,” she said.
“I was woken by this dreadful crashing. I looked out of the window – very carefully so I wasn’t seen – to see … young soldiers, two or three of them, kicking the door down to get in the room I was supposed to be staying in.
“I watched this. I could hear them shouting ‘bitch isn’t there’ and all that kind of stuff and I just watched.
“I never reported it.”
There was another narrow escape a few years earlier when she was serving in Northern Ireland and had been invited to a secure military base along with about a dozen other young servicewomen.
They were put in the front rows of a makeshift stage inside a hanger to watch what was being billed as a kind of variety show put on by the servicemen.
“It started really badly because a man ran on naked and bit the head off a (live) chicken,” Lt Col Allen recalled.
“You are thinking: ‘It is not going to get any better here, it’s really not.’
“[You] got a lot of nakedness, a lot of sexual innuendo. You could feel, as you often can, the tension rising and whereas normally you would leave… we can’t. There is nowhere to go.”
Even though she was only junior, she was the most senior ranking female in the group. She said she looked at the other women and thought they might all have to escape.
As the show ended, she said “the men surged at us, they came forward and started to just grab us”.
“I am an ex-karate champion. I decked the guy who grabbed me. My memory is that he grabbed my arm and said, ‘come with us, we’re about to have a party’, and all the other women were being grabbed at the same time.
“But I hit him. I hit him hard and put him down and we all ran.”
During the rest of her career, the problems Lt Col Allen claims she encountered because of her gender were largely around promotion.
She alleges that her path up through the officer hierarchy was slower than similarly able and less able men.
She says that she never spoke out about this until 2016, when she was again passed over for promotion for a job that she believes she had been very well qualified for.
Lt Col Allen challenged the decision, asking for feedback as to why she was not selected. She says she was told the decision by the all-male board had been unanimous, but she claims no specific reason was ever given.
She eventually spoke to an individual in the army’s personnel centre.
She said: “The line when I just knew the system was broken is when the chap said to me: ‘Why can’t you just accept that you were never good enough?’
“And at that moment …you just know the system isn’t fair and I literally repeated back to him: ‘That’s not what the evidence shows. All my reports, all my career path has been good enough.'”
She made a formal complaint in 2018, requesting an independent review of the decision not to give her the job.
That was not granted following a lengthy complaints process.
She has now submitted an appeal to an ombudsman that reviews service complaints, but there is a 15-month wait until her case will even be considered.
“I think we have to speak up,” Lt Col Allen said.
“It is easy to say that now, I have had to resign my career to speak up and to accept I can’t fix my career at this stage.
“But I can be an advocate for others.”
I think we have to speak up It is easy to say that now, I have had to resign my career to speak up and to accept I can’t fix my career at this stage. But I can be an advocate for others.
The MoD said that all allegations of sexual harassment of any nature are fully investigated through the chain of command.
It said the army operates a confidential “speak out” helpline to support anyone in need of advice.
The army plans to conduct another sexual harassment survey in 2021, three years after the last one, as part of efforts to improve behaviours and hold itself to account, the department said.
Other pro-active work is also carried out to change culture across the service.
All soldiers receive training in diversity, inclusivity, unconscious bias and values and standards. In addition, they are taught what constitutes inappropriate behaviour, it said.
There is also an Army Servicewoman’s Network, with some 4,000 members.