London: Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) said Friday it was “taking action” after dozens of senior female staff complained of a “hostile” and “toxic” environment and sexual assault and harassment within the department.
Around 60 women working in civilian roles at the ministry’s headquarters and elsewhere detailed their complaints in a letter to its top civil servant last month, The Guardian newspaper reported.
Accompanied by anonymous testimonies of the alleged experiences, they included claims that female staff had been propositioned, “groped” and “touched repeatedly” by male colleagues.
“We are taking action to tackle the deeply concerning issues raised,” the ministry, one of the largest UK government departments, said in a statement following The Guardian report.
“No woman should be made to feel unsafe in defence and this behaviour will not be tolerated.
“We also continue to encourage anyone who has experienced or witnessed this kind of inexcusable behaviour to report it immediately.”
The claims are the latest allegations of sexual harassment and other toxic working practices to hit a major British establishment institution.
Female staff working in parliament, London’s Metropolitan Police and other forces, the capital’s fire service, and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) have all come forward with damning complaints in recent years.
In the letter from “senior civilian women” at the MoD, seen by The Guardian, they said their “day-to-day professional lives are made difficult thanks to behaviours that would be considered toxic and inappropriate in public life”.
They accused the ministry of allowing the conduct to be “tolerated”.
“We are spoken over during meetings, we are subject to pejorative language, we receive unwanted attention and face sexual harassment,” they alleged in the complaint, the newspaper said.
The alleged sexual harassment has included “intrusive staring, sexualised comments, running commentary about what we wear, how we look, and how we smell”.
The issues were described as a “current problem, not a historic one”.
The women also claimed that previous complaints about such issues were “generally minimised rather than listened”.
“It is common knowledge among women that (the MoD’s) complaints system is not fit for purpose,” their letter stated, according to The Guardian.
The FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, called the accounts “deeply worrying” and called for immediate action from the MoD and an urgent meeting with the department.