“Good morning, 159th Foot & Mouth Regiment, Private Atkins speaking Sir”.
A typical phone greeting familiar to those who have worked with the British Army over the years – namely one where the individual introduces themselves, their post and then says Sir.
The problem with this greeting is that it assumes two things- firstly that the person calling them is more senior, and secondly that they are male.
On the face of it this may seem a very minor issue to write about, and indeed this article was intended to have been all about Royal Canadian Navy submarine plans and Canada’s future as a credible member of 5 EYES – that will follow. But, events over the weekend suggest that actually this is a subject worth looking at in a bit of depth.
The situation started when a Royal Navy officer, an anaesthetist who posts on twitter as @doctorwibble asked the very reasonable question of Twitter about why the Army trains people to answer phones with Sir, particularly when they don’t know who is calling?
This led to a mixed response, with some posters actively supporting the point being made – namely that until you know whether you’re speaking to a male or female, and whether its an officer or not, perhaps its better to wait before jumping to conclusions.
But other respondents decided that this sort of request was not appropriate, and that it was PC nonsense gone mad by individuals who had never served. In some of the more hyperbolic cases, there were suggestions that this sort of request was designed by the Russians to undermine the effectiveness of our troops, while others suggested that the original poster wouldn’t cope in
a real war if they couldn’t cope with being called sir.
After the original poster tweeted an image of their medal rack, the opposition continued, with suggestions that someone whose operational experience included some very punchy theatres, was not equipped with a medal showing they could cope with fighting against Russia (the OSM for time travel perhaps?), while others jumped in and suggested that as a Doctor, the poster would
have no idea of what real conflict was like, that their medals were probably fake, and that they were just imposters trying to impose their nasty social engineering on the armed forces.
On the one level this sort of behaviour is nonsensical and, frankly, pathetic. But on the other it also demonstrates the real challenges that need to be overcome to help ensure genuine equality of opportunity exists in the armed forces.
It is very hard to imagine a similar set of attacks had a male officer asked perfectly reasonable questions. It is hard to imagine that they would have had their operational experience questioned, their service history alleged to be fake or that they would be accused of being desk bound cowards and REMFs for asking it.
In the normal world people don’t answer the phone and end the salutation by saying ‘sir’. This is not normal behaviour – there is no need to do it! It would be an extremely minor change to stop this, or encourage a pause until they know who they are speaking to before saying ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’.
There is a toxic double standard at the heart of the armed forces which seems to still put forward the view that this is inherently a mans world. That there is no place for any females in it, and that any move to try and recognise that all bar one job in the armed forces (Roman Catholic Padre) is open to both men and women is by extension ‘PC gone mad and social
It is hard to understand looking at it where this deeply rooted insecurity comes from, but it is something that does not make the military look good. It matters because right now the armed forces are short on people, they are short on qualified people and they need to recruit and retain the very best that our society has to offer in order to keep us as a nation safe.
|How to win Twitter…
There is nothing sensible about a culture in which females are made to work twice as hard – not only to do their job, but also be forced to defend their positions when they ask for the most basic of equal treatment and be given the same basic courtesy as their male colleagues.
The level of hysterical overreaction to this case would be funny if it were not so serious. Is it any wonder that the armed forces lack senior women in large numbers if they are constantly forced to defend their right to exist daily? What sort of world is it where this causal passive discrimination is deemed as fine by serving personnel because to change it is ‘social
At a deeper level the behaviours demonstrated on Twitter reinforce the view that some males seem to have that women will always have to work twice as hard to get taken seriously. Of particular concern was the way in which a very impressive operational service record was not taken as credible, was torn apart and was dismissed simply because someone had asked not be called Sir.
This sort of casual micro behaviour may seem small, but what if it is replicated at promotion boards? How can we be certain that promotion boards are not unconsciously looking at promotion reports, remembering someone as being a female soldier who kicked up a stink for wanting to be called ‘ma’am’ and then instead promote a male instead, because ‘he’s a good lad’. While there may be checks and balances in play, stopping this unconscious bias is critical because in a closed promotion system, many female personnel may feel that to speak up and ask for equal treatment is to create circumstances where they are career fouling themselves.
The military does not tolerate dissent, it does not tolerate
those who question the system or ‘fight the white’ and it holds long grudges
against those that do. In small units and Corps, how easy is it to write a report
that damns with faint praise those who cause trouble, rather than engage on the
meat of the issue and fix it?
Is one of the reasons why there are not enough women at the
senior levels of the Services because too many have been career fouled by unconscious
bias during report writing sessions, with reporting chains penalising them for
daring to ask for something that males take as a given right?
The episode also reinforces the point that females need to
work twice as hard for recognition and yet still in the eyes of some do not
belong in the battlefield. Despite the fact that Dr Wibble served in
Afghanistan, well beyond the wire, often in incredible danger carrying out work
that directly saved the lives of dozens of soldiers, she is not in the eyes of
some a proper service person because she asked not to be automatically called sir
on the phone.
Too many female service personnel are forced to work hard to be taken seriously and to get themselves listened to in a system that feels overwhelmingly like a male boarding school. Even little things like at Sandhurst ensuring there are enough toilets for women to use in lecture halls, so that they can get coffee and not stand in a long queue gets seen as being trouble making by male dinosaurs. Apparently asking for the right to not have to choose between getting a wet, or not wetting yourself in a coffee break is social engineering gone mad in these eyes.
|AB Kate Nesbitt in Afghanistan
The biggest irony is that the people who complain the
loudest are the ones who seemingly have the most entrenched position. No matter
how you look at this, it is impossible to see how asking someone to not answer
the phone by automatically saying ‘sir’ will damage operational effectiveness,
yet this is being seriously cited by some as a reason why this request is a bad
Every time a small request is made or a view is expressed on
twitter, not for special treatment, not for something that male personnel don’t
get, but just to be treated in the same way and same access as their male
counterparts, female military personnel get attacked by the same tired legions
of dinosaurs who feel unduly threatened by it.
Not one of them has been able to offer a coherent or
rational explanation as to why this is a bad thing. Instead it seems to boil
down to fear and insecurity on their part. Perhaps they are scared of being
shown up, perhaps they are scared of competition and having incredibly capable
female personnel promote ahead of them. Perhaps they are scared of having to take
orders from a woman. Rather than deal with this, they make out that the people
asking are the problem, and not recognise that they are the problem.
The biggest irony is perhaps that were male soldiers
directed to answer the phone and only say ‘good morning Ma’am’ then they would
be screaming from the rooftops about how unfair it was, and how sexist it was –
particularly in male dominated units. One can only imagine the demands for change
that would follow, and the emphasis on how important it is to fix as quickly as
possible for the sake of fighting power.
Yet this is exactly what female personnel have asked for –
not special treatment but equal treatment. There is no excuse for this not to
happen and in the 21st Century there should be nothing contentious
about asking for equal treatment in a western military.
|AB Kate Nesbitt MC
What can you do to help challenge these views and ensure
that the armed forces are genuinely a force for equal opportunity? For
starters, challenge those who assume that equal treatment equals ‘PC gone mad’.
Its not ‘PC gone mad’ to ensure that 100% of your workforce is treated and held
to the same basic standards where possible.
Secondly, call out micro-sexism – if you see people
answering the phone with a ‘Sir’, why not ask them ‘how did you know it was a
man ringing you’? Apply a little bit of logic to the situation and step away
from the emotion and it quickly becomes nonsensical to apply a gender title
when answering the phone to a stranger.
Think about your language – why for example is there a ‘last
man out chit’ and not ‘last person out’ chit? If you get offended at the idea
of using gender neutral language, why is this the case? If you are offended at
changing it, is it not possible that someone else is equally offended at you
using it – why not go neutral where its sensible to do so and try to strike a balance.
Why is that so difficult to use a slightly different word to reflect 100% of
If you feel offended at not being allowed to use ‘man’, how
do you think women feel when they’ve had any hint of female presence in the
workforce airbrushed out through language that excludes them? Why wouldn’t you want
to reflect 100% of your team in your language, rather than just assuming ‘oh I’m
sure they know that manpower covers ladies too’.
Please do read this superb
by the Naval Officer ‘Fighting Sailor’ about ‘inclusive leadership – or
to give it its proper name, leadership’. Its brilliant – it captures eloquently
what it means to lead, what it means to build a team and why it is so important
we do everything we can to make the team work as one, not weaken it through self-imposed
Finally remember the standard you set is the standard you
walk past. If you are comfortable with people making snide comments, making life
harder for female colleagues, trying to make them work twice as hard to prove they
are your equal, then that’s your call. But that’s setting a really low bar when
it comes to leading by example.
Call out appropriately when people don’t act in a way that
makes us stronger as a team. Make people feel part of the team and if they’re
acting a manner that is unprofessional then take action on it. Don’t stand by
and watch from the sidelines if you see behaviour at odds with the values and standards
of the armed forces – to do so is to perpetuate the problem.
Its not PC gone mad to want to treat people equally, its just
good leadership and common sense.
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