The Armed Forces Covenant is a statement of the moral obligation which exists between the nation, the Government the armed forces.
On 2 December 2021, the Government published its response to the Defence Committee’s inquiry into women in the Armed Forces. It included a new target for women to account for 30% of personnel recruited by 2030. This would be a large increase in female recruitment. Between 31 March 2020 to 31 March 2021, women made up 11.8% of the intake.
This Insight looks at women’s representation in the UK’s Armed Forces and examines changes over time and the three services.
Why is there a drive for female recruitment?
Women are still vastly outnumbered by men in the Armed Forces.
The Defence Sub-Committee, chaired by Sarah Atherton, has highlighted various barriers to women’s participation. The Atherton report, published in July 2021, criticised a dominating male culture and referred to the Armed Forces as “still a man’s world”.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has announced a new ‘Level of Ambition’ for women to account for 30% of recruits by 2030, following the inquiry.
This 30% includes recruitment to the UK Regular Forces and Reserves combined. The focus is on recruitment rather than retention; the aim is for women to account for 30% of intake by 2030 rather than 30% of total personnel.
Recent trends in female recruitment
There has been no clear year-on-year increase in the proportional intake of women in recent years.
In the 12 months up to March 2017, women made up 11.4% of new recruits across the forces. This increased to 12.6% in the year ending in March 2020 but fell to 11.8% over the following year.
The MoD’s previous target for 15% of new recruits to be women by 2020 was never achieved.
As shown in the chart below, the RAF has consistently maintained the highest proportional recruitment of women out of the three branches of the Armed Forces (the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force).
The MoD appears to have an issue retaining women throughout the application stage. The Chief of Defence People, Lieutenant General James Swift, told the Defence Committee that around 20 to 25% of applications come from women. However, as shown in the intake figures on the chart above, the proportion who then go on to employment is much less.
How many women are there in the Armed Forces?
The proportion of women serving in the UK Armed Forces is higher than ever before, according to the MoD.
On 1 April 2021, there were 16,740 women in the UK Regular Forces, accounting for 11% of total strength. The proportion of women in the Reserves is slightly higher at 15% (5,650 women).
Women are best represented in the RAF, where they form 15% of UK Regular personnel and 23% of Reserve personnel. Maria Lyle, the Director of the RAF Families Foundation, links this comparatively high female representation to the RAF being the “youngest of the three Services” and because there are more technology-based rather than physical roles.
How has the number of women changed over time?
The proportion of women in the UK Regular Forces has increased almost every year over the last three decades.
In 1990, 6% of personnel in the UK Regular Forces were women. This proportion had increased to 8% by 2000 and 10% by 2010. However, although the proportion of women has continued to increase, the actual number of female personnel is currently slightly below the level in 2000. This is due to a large reduction in total personnel since 2000.
Women in senior roles
Women are underrepresented in the most senior roles across all three branches of the Armed Forces.
On 1 April 2021, 13.8% of all officers in the forces were women. However, there were just 24 women holding senior officer positions (rank OF-6 and above), making up 5.6% of all officers. This is an increase from 2012, when only 1.2% of senior officers were women.
Women are especially underrepresented at the most senior level in the Royal Navy and Royal Marines. On 1 April 2021, only five out of 127 senior officers were women, accounting for 3.9%.
All these women held the rank of OF-6, commodore/brigadier, and none of OF-7 or above. Across all three services, there were no women at the top rank of OF-9, and only one in the RAF at OF-8.
Can women serve on the frontline?
Yes. Women have long been able to serve in frontline roles such as medical and support positions. However, it was not until 2018 that all roles in the Armed Forces were available to women due to a previous ban on women engaging in ground close combat.
- UK defence personnel statistics, House of Commons Library
- Women in the Armed Forces: From Recruitment to Civilian Life, Defence Sub-Committee
About the author: Megan Harding is a statistics researcher in the Library, specialising in Defence.
Image: British troops train to fight in Norway’s forests during Exercise Trident Juncture by Ed Low under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, © Crown Copyright 2014
This Insight was updated on 18.01.22 to correct an error. In the previous version, the chart titled ‘Women are underrepresented in senior roles’ used incorrect data. The green bar showed the percentage of women in the Armed Forces, when it should have shown the percentage of women that are officers. This has now been corrected.
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