Updated: 26-Mar-2002 Committee on Women in NATO Forces

Special Edition


United Kingdom


Manpower shortages in both World Wars gave women the opportunity to prove that they could successfully perform work previously undertaken only, or predominantly, by men. It was recognised that women had a role to play in the Armed Forces and the Women's Services were permanently established.

The early 1990s saw many changes for servicewomen in the United Kingdom (UK). Women were allowed to serve at sea in surface ships, including combatants, and all aircrew roles were opened to women. Maternity policies were introduced which allowed pregnant Servicewomen to continue to serve. By 1994, women were fully integrated into their respective Services: The Women in the Royal Naval Service (WRNS) integrated into the Royal Navy (RN) on 1 November 1993 and the Queen Alexandra's Naval Nursing Service (QARNNS) was integrated in 1 April 2000. The integration of Women's Royal Army Corps (WRAC) personnel into their employed Corps was completed in April 1992 and in April 1994 the Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF) was disbanded.

Today, women are only excluded from a minority of roles, on the grounds of combat effectiveness or for medical reasons.


Women today are integrated into the three main Services and serve alongside male colleagues in the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force in nearly all specialities. In the UK Armed Forces, the Medical Services are integrated into each of these Services and do not form a separate entity.

Women may not serve as Royal Marine Commandos, in the Royal Armoured Corps, as Infantry and in the RAF Regiment, (those units whose primary duty is "to close with and kill the enemy"), on the grounds of combat effectiveness. They do serve, however, in administrative and support functions in these units, including in the Army support elements of 3 Commando Brigade. Women do not serve in submarines or as mine clearance divers for medical reasons.

General Policies

UK Ministers, Service Chiefs, and other senior officials continue to afford a high priority to the promotion and integration of equal opportunity policies within the Armed Forces. The Services Equal Opportunities goal is to achieve universal acceptance and application of a working environment free from harassment, intimidation and unlawful discrimination, in which all have equal opportunity, consistent with the law, to realise their full potential in contributing to the maintenance and enhancement of operational effectiveness. The Armed Forces value every individual's unique contribution, irrespective of their race, ethnic origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or social background.

The Armed Forces Code of Social Conduct, which sets out the values and standards of behaviour expected of all Service personnel, was introduced as an underlying element of the announcement made by the Secretary of State in Parliament on 12 January 2000, that lifted the ban on homosexuals serving in the UK Armed Forces. The Code applies to all members of the Armed Forces, and regulates personal behaviour regardless of rank, status, gender or sexual orientation. The Code recognises the right of an individual to a private life, but also that the personal behaviour of Service personnel can impact on their professional duties. Hence the application of a Service Test, 'Have the actions or behaviour of an individual adversely impacted or are they likely to impact on the efficiency or operational effectiveness of the Service?', lies at the heart of the policy. Reviews of the effectiveness of the Code of Social Conduct and the policy on homosexuality in the Armed Forces, conducted six months following their introduction, concluded that the change of policy was introduced smoothly and with fewer problems than might have been expected. No changes to the revised policy on homosexuality or the Code of Social Conduct are considered necessary at the present time.

Concerning those areas from which women are excluded, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling on the Sirdar case, published on 26 October 1999, upheld the policy of not employing women in the Royal Marines General Service. The Court accepted that Article 2(2) of the Equal Treatment Directive (ETD) (EC Council Directive 76/207 EEC of 9 Feb 1976) was capable of justifying the exclusion of women from posts in the Armed Forces on grounds of combat effectiveness. On the particular facts of the Sirdar case, the ECJ concluded that competent national authorities were entitled, consistent with the principle of proportionality, to decide that all posts in the Royal Marines where there was a requirement for interoperability should remain exclusively male.

Extensive maternity leave provisions allow servicewomen to choose retirement/discharge on grounds of pregnancy or to return to duty after the birth of the child after a period of leave. For qualifying personnel, such leave comprises a period of 18 weeks ordinary maternity leave (OML) (14 weeks of which are on full pay for those returning to work). In addition unpaid additional maternity leave (AML) may be taken for up to 37 weeks after the birth of the child.


Promotion and pay arrangements are the same for men and women. 73% of posts in the Naval Service, 70% of posts in the Army, and 96% of posts in the RAF are open to women. The remaining posts are subject to the exclusions set out above. Women are deployed to all operational theatres where men serve without specific regard to gender, except when pregnant or on leave following childbirth, when they are re-assigned to duties where the health of the mother and baby can be protected.

In the RN Women have served on the front line onboard warships since September 1990. Four women have now commanded P2000 Fast Training Boats and earlier this year the first female to qualify as a Principal Warfare Officer was appointed as the Executive Officer to a major warship. In the RN's Fleet Air Arm women continue to successfully complete flying training and recently, a female achieved Top Student on the Observer Training Course. Women in the RAF are also flying aircraft and are in combat support and combat service support posts in the Army.

In the Medical Services, women from all three Nursing Services continue to support operational deployments along with their male counterparts.

Service Statistics

As of April 2001, women represent 8.1% of the UK Regular Armed Forces. There are 16.686 women on active duty: 3,471 (8.2%) in the Naval Service, 7,756 (7.1%) in the Army, and 5,459 (10.2%) in the RAF.

In the Naval Service, women have served at sea since 1990. On average, women make up between 10-15% of a ship's company. The highest rank attained by women is Commodore (OF6) and there are currently three Captains.

In the Army, the highest-ranking women are Brigadiers (OF6), of whom there are currently three, and Colonels (OF5), of whom there are 14.
In the RAF all posts, except those in the RAF Regiment, are open to women. The highest rank achieved by a female is Air Commodore (OF6). Female pilots, navigators and rear crew specialists fly in a variety of aircraft (multi-engine, jets, and helicopters). Currently the most senior rank held by a woman is Group Captain (OF5), of whom there are eight.


There is no unlawful gender discrimination with regard to recruitment. The Army introduced gender-free physical testing in April 1998 based on a scientific approach to physical fitness. The aim of the Army's Physical Selection Standards (Recruits) (PSS(R)) is to provide a valid and reliable predictor of physical task performance. Basic recruitment requirements are the same for both genders. The Army's (PSS(R)) operates at all Army Recruit Selection Centres. This scientific approach to physical testing consists of nine tests and measurements to predict the level of fitness each recruit will achieve at the end of basic training. This new test matches the recruits potential to an appropriate trade and its introduction has reduced injuries during training, particularly amongst women. Gender-free tests are also applied to certain trades in the RN and RAF that require a higher physical standard, in order to confirm suitability.


Training requirements are the same for women and men. Army officer training is conducted at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Soldier recruit training is broken into two phases: Initial Entry, which is basic military training and prepares recruits for phase two: Trade School training. There are five Army Recruit Training Regiments, four of which conduct fully integrated training for male and female recruits.

Naval officer candidates undergo integrated training at Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, while recruit training is conducted at HMS Raleigh New Entry Training Centre near Plymouth. The RN Seamanship Trade School is also located at HMS Raleigh and other specialist Trade Schools are located throughout the UK.

Training in the RAF is also fully integrated with initial officer training and Airman Aircrew training conducted at RAF College Cranwell near Grantham. Recruit training is conducted at RAF Halton near Aylesbury with the exception of that for RAF Regiment Gunners, which takes place at RAF Honington in Suffolk.

Following the Defence Training Review, completed in March 2001, it was recognised that there are a number of common single Service activities where it made sense to conduct training jointly in Defence Schools. Project Definition studies are currently underway to propose the best solutions.

In March 1998, the MOD established a new Tri-Service Equal Opportunities (EO) Training Centre at Shrivenham near Swindon, which was officially opened on 25 September 1998. The Centre trains Service Equal Opportunity Advisers and Trainers and also provides EO awareness seminars for Senior Service and Senior MOD Civil Servants. In addition, the Services have their own EO training and education programmes supplemented by telephone help lines, videos looking at racial and sexual harassment, bullying, Continuous Attitude Surveys, workshops and Focus Groups.

Recent and Projected Developments

On 27 October 1997, when the Secretary of State for Defence announced that the Army was to extend employment opportunities for women from 47% to 70% of posts, he ordered an investigation as to whether employment options for women in the Armed Forces could be expanded even further. The Army together with the other 2 Services completed an initial study investigating any potential impact on combat effectiveness that the introduction of women to forward units could cause. This is being evaluated and the results are expected to be announced later this year.

The Armed Forces Equal Opportunities Policy is currently under revision and is to be re-titled "Diversity Policy". The policy aims to go further than the mere elimination of unlawful discrimination. It recognises and values individuals from diverse backgrounds who bring fresh ideas, perceptions, skills and attributes to the military.


The UK Government's Strategic Defence Review delivers modern forces to the modern world. Like all NATO countries, work is still needed to ensure greater equality and diversity throughout the Services. The measures taken thus far in the UK Armed Forces reflect considerable progress, however, and more importantly, a determination shared by the Ministers and Service Chiefs to enable the Armed Forces to recruit from the widest possible base, become more open, tolerant and representative of the society they serve, to sustain our manning needs and to maintain operational capability.

National Co-ordination Office

Ministry of Defence
Directorate of Service Personnel Policy Service Conditions
Room 673 St Giles Court
1-13 St Giles High Street
London WC2H 8LD
Tel: 0044-207 218 7640
Fax: 0044-207 218 2176
E-mail: Sppol-eoad@defence.mod.uk

National Delegate to the Committee on Women in the NATO Forces

Lieutenant Colonel N H Larkin (Nick), Royal Engineers
Assistant Director Equal Opportunities
(Same address and contact numbers as above.)

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