When the force is against you

PC Karen Wade lost her claim for sexual harassment against three colleagues this week. But other women throughout the police and armed services can testify to the abuse they have encountered in the male 'canteen culture' they inhabitorts
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As Sergeant Jane McGill swallowed back the tears in court last Wednesday, the first she had allowed herself in a police career spanning 26 years of alleged sexual harassment, the most telling moment came as she was asked when the most recent incident occurred: "Last week," she responded dismally, regaining her composure.

Despite the policy papers, the codes of good conduct, the training courses in equal opportunities, and the benign pledges by senior officials, sexism in the police and the armed forces remains rife, according to the women who work there and the statistical evidence. If there is anything a man hates, it seems it is a woman in a uniform that matches his own.

Sgt McGill, 43, was giving evidence against the police in PC Karen Wade's industrial tribunal against three male colleagues and West Yorkshire police, which she lost. In the course of the trial, Sgt McGill said she could not count the number of times she had been the victim of "inappropriate sexual language", that she had been subjected to four indecent assaults, and that she had spoken to up to 30 police women colleagues in the past six years about harassment.

"I've turned a blind eye to this behaviour. I blamed myself but I survived it. I wasn't going to let it destroy me," she said as she started to cry. "I'm quite amazed that I'm getting emotional. I've never spoken about it in this way before."

According to researchers into sexual harassment in the police, Army, Navy, RAF and the fire brigade, her response was typical. In a bid to find their place in traditionally macho cultures, women have attempted to fob off the alleged sexism and bullying waged against them. But the endless list of incidents that has emerged puts a far from flattering spotlight on all the forces.

The armed forces only fell under the Sex Discrimination Act last year, forcing them fully to address their attitudes to women colleagues for the first time.

Last year, a female soldier with an "exemplary record" became the first woman to bring a successful sex discrimination case against the Ministry of Defence, on grounds other than pregnancy or improper recruitment. Lynn Goodall, 30, an acting sergeant in the Royal Signals, won pounds 47,500. When she attended a course for promotion, she was told: "We do not want fucking women here." When she complained to a senior officer, he told her that when she ran, "everything went the wrong way".

Sgt Goodall said after the case that sexism was a part of life for women in the forces. "For a 19-year-old recruit, constant suggestive comments are just accepted. You get frequently groped and touched up. Your subordinates discuss your sex life with the officers in front of you," she said. "Women are either tarts or dykes to the squaddies, and to the senior officers they just do not have a place in a man's world."

Last year, a married naval officer who used a mirror to look up a Wren's skirt was demoted and stripped of his good conduct badges by a court martial. The petty officer was also reprimanded for telling one young Wren: "You lot normally have big arses, but yours looks all right from here."

According to academics who have researched women's status in the armed forces, nothing will change under the lip-service attempts to introduce equal opportunities policies. The only real impact comes when the critical mass of women to men reaches a certain level that forces them to become accepted. As the figures below show, excluding the Metropolitan Police Service, about 14 per cent of police officers are women, but in the armed services and the fire service the proportion is much lower.

Dr Jennifer Brown, a senior lecturer at Portsmouth University who carried out research among 1,802 women police in 1993, found that 40 per cent had experienced low-level harassment and unwanted touching. A further 6 per cent had experienced serious harassment including sexual assault at work, which was also significantly higher across the armed forces compared with other workplaces.

"It's much higher in the military and services where the environment is male-dominated," Dr Brown said. "When you have a small number of one group, in this case women, there isn't a critical mass to allow change. The men have to give way to the fact that women may do the job as well as them, and they may do it differently. You don't necessarily need size 10 boots and a lot of brawn. But many are reluctant to change their attitudes."

She added: "It's not until you have a mass of 20 to 25 per cent that things start to improve. There are small signs of improvement. The new batons are the same for women and men for the first time. But progress remains enormously slow. In the last 20 years, women have fought to get incorporated into all areas of police work, like traffic departments and CID squads, but it has been an inch-by-inch process."

One policewoman in her early thirties, who wished to remain anonymous, summed up the mood of the force yesterday. "I've always wanted to be a policewoman, since I was 14. It was just what I wanted to do. It started from watching police shows on the telly, and I became really serious about it," she said.

"But the sexism started on my second day. When I made a complaint I was sent to Coventry by the whole lot of them. It ranged from trying to shove things up my backside to writing really crude things about me on notepaper. I became a firearms person, that didn't matter, I was a top student, that didn't matter, and in the end, because of all the hassle involved in complaining, I blew my attempts to get into another department."

She added: "Either you try to be one of the boys, or you're on your own and you become a target. I'm determined not to leave, because I refuse to run away, but I'm worried if I try complaining again, I'll never get to move department. You can't win."

The 150-year-old history of the police force offers the most telling story of how resistant men have been to the arrival of women. It let in the first policewoman in 1915, albeit grudgingly: the government was anxious to clear the streets outside soldiers' arsenals of prostitutes and decided that women were better equipped to do the job.

Only during the Second World War did the role of women expand. But when the men returned they went back into retreat, and it was not until the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975 that they became a serious threat to male domination of the forces. That year, there was an outcry from men at the highest level of the force that women should no longer be restricted to cases involving children and women, but spread their duties even wider, including firearms training.

When Pauline Clare became the first woman chief constable in Britain last year, aged 47, in charge of some 2,800 men in Lancashire, she recalled that when she joined the force aged 17, there were no "police officers", only policemen and police women who were strictly segregated. "We worked different hours, in different buildings and dealt with different cases ... generally the expectation was that we'd work for a few years, then marry, have families and give up," she said.

Although all forces in Britain have actively sought to take up equal opportunities policies and codes of conduct in the past four years, and it is part of police training, there is concern that the senior ranks are only playing lip service to the real problem. Among the recent embarrassments was the case of PC Phil Headley, awarded an Equal Opportunities Achievement Award for a campaign against sexist behaviour, only to be forced to resign over harassment of a woman officer.

Jackie Cole, a representative for women constables in the Metropolitan Police, said: "It's being driven underground. It's happening, but nobody is doing anything to stop it. Although it's a minority causing it, they are ruining it for the majority. The canteen culture is still rife. You get a group of young people coming through training, and they don't understand why they're getting lessons in equal opportunities.

"Then they get put in the canteen, where the men with 15 or 16 years service are telling them women are a waste of time and they just want to go off and have children. Peer pressure comes in when they all meet, and then it carries on."

Among the cases Ms Cole is currently dealing with is that of an attractive 22-year-old woman officer who was accused of being a "tart" and "walking for the boys" (slang for deliberately trying to appeal to men), despite an excellent record.

Even the fire brigade has not emerged well from the gradual inclusion of women. Last year, Tania Clayton, 29, told how she was called a "tart" and a "cow" and forced to make the tea when she became one of the first two female firefighters to join the Hereford and Worcester brigade in 1989.

So how will the "culture of harassment" painted by Jane McGill this week be replaced by a more tolerant workforce in the last great bastions of sexism? If Dr Brown is right, only when the numbers of women increase significantly will the problem be relieved. But who will want to join a force that is being exposed either as rampantly sexist, or as so oppressive that women are too frightened to voice their worries?

Ms Cole said: "All these women are asking for is to be heard. They are not gold diggers, they are hard-working professionals who have come up against harassment time and time again. All they want is to be believed and for it to stop. I'm normally the first person who listens to what they're saying, but by that time they've been made to feel completely worthless."

WOMEN IN UNIFORM: THE FIGURES

POLICE (Regular force, England and Wales, excluding Metropolitan Police Service)

1995 Total: 125,222 Women: 17,891

(1 chief constable, 6 assistant chief constables, 43 superintendents, 55 chief inspectors, 251 inspectors, 1,198 sergeants and 16,337 constables)

1990 Total: 96,927 Women: 10,837

(1 assistant chief constable, 28 superintendents, 40 chief inspectors, 153 inspectors, 560 sergeants and 10,055 constables)

ROYAL NAVY/ROYAL MARINES

1996 Men: 44,676 (7,913 officers)

Women: 3,631 (457 officers )

1986 Men: 63,968 (9,650 officers) Women: 3,405 (380 officers)

THE ARMY

1996 Men: 102,858 (12,733 officers)

Women: 6,529 (1,091 officers)

1986 Men: 154,393 (16,142 officers)

Women: 6,665 (964 officers)

ROYAL AIR FORCE

1996 Men: 59,126 (11,038 officers)

Women: 5,597 (941 officers)

1986 Men: 87,057 (14,543 officers) Women: 6,181 (862 officers)

In 1986 there were no women above the rank of brigadier in the Army, and none above commodore in the RAF or the Navy. In 1996, the same is true, while there are only two women of this rank (both air commodores), compared with six a decade ago.

FIRE SERVICE (Full-time staff)

1995 Men: 38,774 Women: 194

Figures supplied by the Home Office and the MoD.

What is sexual harassment?

"I was only being friendly" was the stock get-out once used by men accused of unwanted sexual advances or sexually based harassment of other kinds. But it is now established that a victim of sexual harassment can allege discrimination under the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act. A woman subjected to actual physical abuse, such as unwanted touching, or oppressive suggestive remarks, is now in a far stronger position to do something about it than in the days when men could shrug off such complaints or say they were only joking.

The risk of legal action arises because the treatment being complained of - the touching of a woman's breasts, say, or continual leering or sexual innuendo or the denial of promotion or advancement because advances have been spurned - is not treatment that would have been meted out to a man. But sexual cases of any kind have never been easy to win. The decisions about harassment complaints are always going to be subjective, and will often turn on a question of degree. One tribunal's attitude towards what some would term sexual knockabout will vary from another's, as will views on whether a woman is "hypersensitive" or "overreacting".

Those old chestnuts are bad enough for a complainant, but just as important is the question of evidence. A complainant who is unable to call on independent and reliable evidence from other witnesses is always going to face an uphill task. When it is a woman's story against a man's, one slip in in the witness box can mean the case is doomed.

PATRICIA WYNN DAVIES

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