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Deborah Hartung

Personify Change

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The RAF’S latest assault: Sexual harassment is not the problem – systemic misogyny is.

Following the latest case of sexual harassment, where a culture of predatory behaviour towards women in the RAF’s Red Arrows has been unearthed, Deborah Hartung reports…
four red jet planes in mid air

Hot on the heels of the Post Office Horizon scandal, and amongst other recent investigations into the male elite, the Royal Air Force (RAF) is in the news again – and the story is not flattering. Reports of a female service person driven from the RAF after enduring endless harassment from her superior are shocking but heartbreakingly familiar.

These most recent allegations of sexual harassment within the RAF underscore a stark reality: decades of institutional inertia have failed to root out deep-seated sexism and misogyny in its ranks. 

It appears that, while the rest of the world is seeking diversity, inclusion and belonging at work, the RAF is losing female service people due to its unwillingness or inability to create a safe and inclusive working environment. 

After numerous complaints, media reports and a highly publicised enquiry (and the subsequent Wigson Report), one is left wondering how an organisation tasked with national security seemingly continues to fail to protect its own. 

When did ‘respect’ for the uniform stop applying to the women who wear it?  Or was it all just lip service by the boys’ club culture that continues to tacitly protect those in power while silencing victims?

The Systemic nature of the problem

We need to talk about more than just sexual harassment. It’s the tip of an insidious iceberg. Consider for a moment the microaggressions women in the military likely face daily. Being excluded from informal banter, constantly being questioned on expertise that male colleagues never need to prove, or enduring ‘harmless jokes’ that belittle their roles. 

This constant drip-drip erosion chips away at the foundation of respect and belonging and creates an environment where more egregious offences are almost a logical progression. 

These problems stretch far beyond the RAF. Similar patterns play out in male-dominated fields, from policing to engineering and tech. Yet the military’s rigid hierarchical structure makes tackling this beast exceptionally complex. The assumption that rank equals wisdom, even in matters of interpersonal conduct, breeds complacency. 

Toxic cultural norms of dominance and invulnerability within male-dominated power structures allow for predatory behaviours to flourish unchecked. These patterns become ingrained and entirely systemic, perpetuating cycles of harassment by protecting individuals whose authority rests on those same problematic cultural beliefs. 

Unfortunately, the ‘feedback’ mechanisms meant to catch harassment will often feel inaccessible to those targeted, partly because of the power imbalance that they expose, but also partly because of the toxic mentality that ‘toughing it out’ somehow equates to ‘strength’.

But, since most of us work in the private sector, what does all of this mean for us as HR practitioners and business leaders?

The biggest barriers to change: Hierarchy and complacency

One of the most common challenges we find in any culture transformation work is in organisations where there is a lot of hierarchy and an attitude of ‘that’s just how things have always been done around here’. Hierarchy in and of itself, breeds a culture that assumes that seniority somehow equates to all kinds of superiority of knowledge, experience and power. 

The views of ‘junior staff’ aren’t considered to be valuable in any way and the concepts of employee listening or co-creating solutions, are entirely unheard of. Anyone who dares to question anything or seeks to challenge the status quo is automatically branded a ‘troublemaker’ and seen as a threat. 

So, of course, nothing ever changes. The people who caused the problems in the first place are the ones who have the power to make changes. But they don’t see anything wrong with their way of doing things and they take any feedback or information to the contrary, as a personal attack. They close ranks and they tend to double down on their approach. 

From reports to reality: 3 practical steps toward transformation

The Wigson Report has provided a great framework and recommendations for changes to be implemented within the RAF, specifically. If we are to be a little more practical as an HR community, we need to ensure that we are:

1. Confronting deeply held beliefs

Actions and behaviours are the outward manifestation of our beliefs. At the heart of any real transformation, is a willingness to name and challenge deeply held beliefs about aspects such as gender, power, the nature of work, the function of leadership and the meaning of inclusion. 

Certain beliefs may inadvertently normalize the degradation of women or people with disabilities and no amount of workplace training or corporate policies on diversity, equity and inclusion, will have any impact whatsoever if we don’t challenge and change the beliefs at the root of the problems.

2. Establishing employee listening and reporting mechanisms

While annual engagement surveys serve a purpose, technology enables us to have much more robust employee listening and reporting mechanisms in place. Invest in HR Tech that prioritizes ongoing pulse checks, mood or sentiment tracking and other employee listening tools. 

Anonymous complaint channels and a means to make recommendations for improvement also help to guard against groupthink or fears of retribution for speaking up. 

3. Encouraging accountability for quantitative and qualitative performance

For too long, our performance management focus has been on quantitative measures. We have ignored the qualitative aspects such as listening, inclusivity, building positive relationships and showing empathy and support. 

Not all unacceptable workplace behaviour will lead to formal disciplinary action, so saying that there is a ‘zero tolerance policy’ isn’t nearly as effective as incorporating qualitative measures into performance evaluations. 

Meaningful action

Meaningful action is long overdue. This isn’t about public statements or cosmetic revisions of policy documents. Instead, we need male leaders to step up as allies, challenge problematic attitudes amongst their peers and proactively participate in building more equitable organisations.

Not just in the RAF, but everywhere. As unfortunate as this latest report is, it presents an opportunity to be a vanguard, demonstrating how deep-rooted cultural flaws can be addressed for any organisation that values the true capabilities, skills and strengths of all its people. 

The RAF is uniquely positioned to lead the charge, breaking toxic cycles and establishing a new ethos – one where everyone, regardless of their gender, feels safe, respected and empowered to reach their full potential. 

Interested in this topic? Read Post Office Horizon scandal: How to ensure your organisation isn’t in the next ITV drama series

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Deborah Hartung

SPARKFluencer: Sparking Ideas Influencing Change

Read more from Deborah Hartung