At best, the Defence Forces barely tolerates women and, at its worst, verbally, physically, sexually and psychologically abuses women in its ranks. This is a reflection of the experience of those who currently serve or have served.
88% of female respondents in the Independent Review Group (IRG) Defence Force Perceptions and Experience Survey reported that they have experienced one or more forms of sexual harassment, compared with 17% of male respondents. This starts at initial training in the Cadet School and in initial enlisted training.
The key findings in the report include:
- Bullying, harassment, discrimination and sexual harassment continue in the Defence Forces today, with increased reports of sexual harassment among serving members;
- Women in the Defence Forces have low status, with the organisation displaying “pockets of misogyny” and a hypermasculine culture;
- The working environment is not safe for men or women, and doesn’t take into account the principles of dignity, equality, mutual respect and duty of care;
- A strong lack of trust in leadership — 50% of respondents were not satisfied with management;
- Cadets, women, the lower ranks and those who challenge are at risk from predatory older members;
- Members didn’t trust in complaints procedures and those responsible for dealing with them;
- Most respondents never made a formal complaint about their harassment, bullying, sexual harassment or sexual assault – retaliation meant making a complaint was considered career-ending;
- ‘Officers investigating officers’ cannot be allowed to continue, and this will require a total overhaul of the complaints procedure.
The report found that the main perpetrators of misogynistic behaviour were male officers or senior NCOs, but it also came from male peers and sometimes female officers/senior NCOs.
Although not all behave in this unacceptable manner, the research showed the presence of serial perpetrators whose behaviour is not addressed and is, in fact, often rewarded.
• "I was followed, mocked, threatened with violence, assaulted Constant bullying until I transferred unit."
• "No confidence with complaints procedures. No protection. Higher ranks always win."
•"Lies written and spread about me by officers to cover up their own and other officers neglect/ incompetence and unacceptable behaviour."
• "During training, the language used towards females by certain staff members was atrocious. “C***s” was regularly used."
• "Female soldiers do as they like - they are never held accountable or to the same standards as men. Lesbian bullying and sexual assault is a very serious issue, which is never addressed."
• "Males knocking on doors in the middle of the night with drink taken, unwanted sexual advances on female personnel with drink taken."
• "I had suicidal thoughts."
• "As a cadet, I was repeatedly and unfairly targeted by a member of the directing staff. Incidents that went unpunished."
• "Women are the worst bullies in the military."
• "A senior officer made unwanted sexual advances, I rejected her and she retaliated by treating me differently than she did previously. My work was criticized, others were given preferential treatment, she turned people against me and made my work life miserable."
• "Daily there is always some comment about my sex. Or accusations on how I have achieved positively in my career. It must of course be because I have breasts or performed some sort of sexual act."
• "I hate myself for being so weak and not fighting back."
• "As a male officer I witnessed many incidents of sexual harassment in the DF."
Tánaiste Micheál Martin said he was “shocked” and “disgusted” by the findings of the report which looked into sexual misconduct, bullying, harassment, and discrimination arising from a series of very serious allegations made about the Defence Forces.
Announcing a statutory inquiry into how complaints made by members of the Women of Honour group and others in the Defence Forces were handled, Mr Martin said the report has raised the “most profound” issues.
The Government has agreed to implement a number of measures and reforms to address the issues identified in the report.
Among these are:
- A statutory inquiry into how complaints were handled will be established. Tánaiste Micheál Martin will consult with various groups, including the Women of Honour, before bringing the terms of reference of this inquiry to Government. It is hoped that this inquiry will be established before the end of the year. Mr Martin warned that he does not want the investigation to go on for "years" as has been the case with other State inquiries.
- New laws will be drafted "quickly" to establish an external independent complaints process for members of the defence forces.
- The Defence Act 1954 will be amended to provide the legislative basis to enable allegations of any type of sexual assault in the defence forces in the State to be referred to An Garda Síochána.
- A non-statutory inquiry will be set up to look into the process of ‘medical boarding’ and also a study of deaths by suicide of both current and former members of the defence forces over the last 20 years.
- The Tánaiste will spearhead a significant programme of reform and culture change within the defence forces, with the support of newly appointed external expertise. This will run alongside implementation of the recommendations of the Commission on the defence forces.
- An External Oversight Body of the Defence Forces will be set up immediately to oversee and ensure the implementation of the recommendations in the Report.
The IRG report recommended the setting up of a “statutory fact-finding process” to identify if there were any “systemic failures” in the army’s complaints system. This would be to “ensure accountability and transparency”.
It found the profile of an Irish soldier in the eyes of the Defence Forces, as evidenced through written documentation and behavioural practices, is a stereotypical Irish male who can carry very heavy weights and run fast. It is a very narrow set of criteria. Females are not considered soldiers, not because of their lack of capabilities to do the work of soldiering, but because the definition of a soldier in the Defence Forces is masculine.
Like power sports and high-endurance sports, the key attributes that are focused on in military organisations are physical strength and competitiveness; however, unlike the Defence Forces, sporting organisations like boxing and rowing have looked beyond their traditional gender norms at the medals that they could win if they included more women – and have succeeded in making these changes and secured medal success.
In the 40 years since women were first allowed to join the Defence Forces, it appears that no thought has gone into researching, thinking about or describing a Defence Forces soldier who is female.
The IRG panel has also recommended what amounts to the removal of the requirement that soldiers have to go through their direct line managers — or chain of command — to complain about bullying and harassment.
It recommends that an external human resources professional or service should substitute the senior officer “in respect of all complaints”.
That HR service or professional should, the report states: “Exercise all functions now vested in the commander and also all the functions of the superior authority”.
The IRG report also recommends that there should be an investigation into whether there have been “serious failures in the complaint system in relation to the redress of wrongs” and whether “there has been a misuse of disciplinary process, access to promotion and to courses as a form of retaliation or to deter complaints”.
Complaints about the exposure of Air Corps personnel to hazardous chemicals has also been raised and the IRG panel has recommended that complaints about health and safety issues in the air corps should be investigated.
Added to other recommendations, the IRG wants a survey done on the deaths by suicide of both serving and former serving members of the Defence Forces.
The recommendations, which also call for a restorative justice process being set up for “healing the wrongs that have been reported” have been by the Women of Honour and they are currently looking through them.
They were among the serving and ex-serving women who raised allegations of sexism, bullying, sexual assault, and rape in the Defence Forces and who featured in an RTÉ documentary in 2021.
They have also called for the removal of the so-called chain of command rules because victims can often end up going to their superior officer to complain about bullying when in fact that same officer can often be the actual instigator of the abuse in the first place.
Defence Minister Mr Martin said the statutory inquiry will be “challenging” as there is a “fear” of repercussions, even among those who have previously made complaints.
“To be frank, notwithstanding the work of the very many good people who serve, the report makes clear that the culture and work environment that exists within the Defence Forces in 2023 is simply an entirely unacceptable — bullying, misogynistic behaviour, and any form of sexual misconduct have no place in any workplace in this country.”
He thanked members of the Women of Honour group for raising complaints and to those who had the “courage” to tell what happened to them in the Defence Forces.
He said legislation will be passed that will ensure that any allegations of sexual abuse are reported to the gardaí.
“This will be very, very difficult reading for a lot of good members of the Defence Forces,” he said.
The Tánaiste said officials will have to look “radically” at command and control and other areas within the defence forces.
Mr Martin added that there has been a “broad resistance to change” and this has to be addressed.
The Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, Lieutenant General Seán Clancy said the Defence Forces "accept the findings" of this report and will now work the Tánaiste and the Department of Defence to "fulfil all of the approved recommendations".
He said: "The findings of this report are stark and we need to change.
"We are working tirelessly to ensure the Defence Forces is a workplace, where the pervading culture is underpinned by the principles of dignity, equality, mutual respect and duty of care."
He added: “My first priority is the safety and wellbeing of our serving members and we are fully committed to achieving the necessary cultural change in our organisation.
"I am confident and determined that we can deliver the transformation required to build a better Defence Forces for the future. We must and we will change”.
The profile of an Irish soldier in the eyes of the Defence Forces, is a stereotypical Irish male who can carry very heavy weights and run fast. It is a very narrow set of criteria.
Females are not considered soldiers, not because of their lack of capabilities to do the work of soldiering, but because the definition of a soldier in the Defence Forces is masculine. Like power sports and high-endurance sports, the key attributes that are focused on in military organisations are physical strength and competitiveness; however, unlike the Defence Forces, sporting organisations like boxing and rowing have looked beyond their traditional gender norms at the medals that they could win if they included more women – and have succeeded in making these changes and secured medal success.
In the 40 years since women were first allowed to join the Defence Forces, it appears that no thought has gone into researching, thinking about or describing a Defence Forces soldier who is female. The Defence Forces appears to have adopted an ‘add women and stir’ model. No consideration appears to have been paid to identifying the capacities and strengths of female soldiers. No thought or preparation went into elements like uniforms, boots and facilities. The approach seems to have been (and, in many areas, continues to be) one of ‘Get in there and try to be as much of a man as you can be’. This lacks any talent management, insight or understanding of respective strengths and weaknesses, and is clearly inappropriate.
The Defence Forces requires a model of an Irish soldier who is female and is managed by modern talent management approaches, as are her male colleagues. To be ‘female’ is to be considered an object rather than a full human being. As an object, ‘it’ has no human rights and deserves no respect or equality, but is to be tolerated because the Defence Forces is required to ‘let women in’.
This is not an approach towards gender that ensures that women are given equal treatment, integrated into the Defence Forces and fully embraced as members of the Defence Forces. The enforcement of traditional gender norms in the Defence Forces makes the recruitment and retention of female personnel extremely challenging. It is a testament to the tenacity of the women who are currently serving in the Defence Forces, and to the male colleagues who have supported them, that they have navigated misogynist clusters and individuals well enough to remain in an environment which is hostile to women and unsafe for those without an unusually high capacity to counter or ignore the myriad ways in which the gender schema are designed to restrict, reject and punish them for being women. This is a situation that cannot continue.
The leadership and rank and file in the Defence Forces must shift their perspective to align with modern attitudes towards gender, the role of women in the Defence Forces, acceptable behaviour, and adopting equality not just as a value but also as a lived reality. The specific recommendations include adopting measures to address the culture of misogyny and disrespect for all things female, including enforcing strong leadership support of a new culture; the long-overdue development of a sophisticated vision and strategy for the inclusion of females in the Defence Forces, consistent with UN Security Council resolution 1325; identifying unacceptable attitudes and beliefs about females at recruitment, performance reviews and promotion competitions; and conducting a review of the training methods and culture in the Cadet School to eliminate inappropriate methods, attitudes and culture from that vital development channel.
From the final report of the Independent Review Group - Defence, to the Minister, p42, edited for length