If we want true gender equality, Commander Sarah West must be treated the same as any man

And that means no concessions for wrongdoing


After Commander Sarah West became the first woman in history to take charge of a Royal Navy warship two years ago, she insisted that, because there were already a number of servicewomen in challenging roles, she was  “not reinventing the wheel”.

However much she did not want her appointment to be newsworthy, it was – just as it would be if a woman was to take charge of a political party, the Bank of England or the BBC. When the appointment was made, some wondered how Cdr West would cope on a boat with all those men. Could a woman hold authority over 185 sailors and crew under challenging, isolating conditions and in a service renowned for its rough masculinity?

Now it seems any doubters over Cdr West’s ability to command a warship have their answer. The 41-year-old has been sent home after, it is alleged, having an affair with her third in command, married fellow officer Lt Cdr Richard Gray. If Cdr West was a man in a relationship with a female subordinate, it may still have made the news (sex scandals on warships arouse a certain level of interest) but would certainly not have stirred the same level of interest. And with our fixation on this story, the question continues to hang in the air: should women be put in charge of boats full of men?

In an interview earlier this year, Cdr West, who is separated from her husband, a former Royal Navy pilot, said there were drawbacks to her job: “Years at sea probably explains why I’m single. But every person in the military makes sacrifices.” You would think sailing around the Atlantic on HMS Portland for months on end, looking for enemy submarines and running humanitarian missions, would be challenging to the needs and desires of anyone – man or woman. We are told that relationships happen in the Royal Navy all the time, and are permitted as long as they don’t harm “operational effectiveness”. Relationships with subordinates are banned under the Armed Forces Code of Social Conduct if they compromise this operational effectiveness. Both Cdr West and Lt Cdr Gray, are being investigated for breaching that code.

It is possible to condemn this alleged adulterous affair – and worry about what it means for Britain’s naval defences. It is possible to feel sympathy for Lt Cdr Gray’s wife, who married him less than a year ago and wrote about it in Perfect Wedding magazine – a particularly heart-rending and poignant aspect of this saga. It is possible to condemn a person in a position of authority, no matter which gender they are, for embarking on a relationship with a more junior person. This man and woman may have been very close together in rank, but whenever a boss sleeps with an employee there is the potential for power to turn into abuse, humiliation and recrimination.

But despite this, it is also possible to see this as a blow in the fight for equality. When women are appointed or elected to top positions, we should cheer it as a landmark for all women, as well as a great personal achievement for the individual. When that woman makes a mistake, we should treat her in the exact same way we would a man in her position. If we want real gender equality, women must not be given concessions for wrongdoing. That’s the price of equality.

Cdr West’s background – she went to a comprehensive school in Grimsby – is not the typical CV of an officer in the Armed Forces. Her achievement in commanding HMS Portland is all the more remarkable, then. It would be a shame for her to lose her rank and post over this alleged affair, though – if we want no special treatment – then it must be left to the Royal Navy to decide.

What would be really “reinventing the wheel” would be for the entire Armed Forces not to be out of bounds to women – in both the most senior ranks and on the front line.

In one of his last announcements as Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond said he wanted women to be able to fight in combat roles alongside men, something more far-reaching than the alleged cabin exploits of a skipper and her third in command.

Air Vice-Marshal Elaine West (no relation), currently the highest-ranking female British military officer, says we are close to a woman being appointed to the most senior job in the forces of all,  the Chief of the Defence Staff. It is only when more women are in charge across the Armed Forces that we can stop obsessing about the alleged affair of Cdr West.

BBC trip up over Games commentary

On Tuesday evening, as competitors in the women’s 1,500m of the Commonwealth Games neared the final straight, Laura Muir of Scotland was in medal contention with England’s Laura Weightman and Faith Chepngetich Kipyegon of Kenya. Suddenly, Muir looked as if she had been tripped and stumbled out of the race, finishing 11th. Kipyegon went on to take gold ahead of Weightman in second. I waited for the BBC’s commentators to mention Muir’s trip, but there was nothing then, nor in the highlights later that evening.

If the two Lauras had switched places, we would not have heard the end of how the English runner had been apparently tripped. Muir herself claims she had been clipped by another runner’s foot, but whatever happened, I think the BBC gave weight to those who accuse it of an instinctive pro-England bias.

No need for a slow lane for women

Talking of women and speed, the Labour MP Meg Hillier has called for separate lanes for cyclists who want to go fast and those – who she claims are mainly female – who want to “pootle”.

I find this puzzling, because plenty of women I know who commute by bike to work don’t want to “pootle” and aren’t afraid  to wear Lycra.

Women are three times less likely to cycle than men, but that’s not about fellow cyclists, it’s about the danger posed by traffic and disjointed cycle lanes. Wouldn’t it be better – and simpler – for cycle lanes  to be more joined up and for more to be built on disused railway lines, as has been promised, for years,  in London?

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