Breaking employment barriers for women in the military

Iconic Hollywood actor Ginger Rogers once said, “I did everything that Fred [Astaire] did, only backwards and in high heels.”

Women have the same skills, the same education, and the same training opportunities as men, and yet they face additional barriers because of their gender. When you’re a woman involved in the military, be that having served or being a military spouse, the barriers to employment are even higher.

The statistics for military women

Women make up over half of the UK’s population, and yet, as of April 2022, only 11.3% of the military is female.

Research by Cranfield University and the Institute for Employment Studies found that women have a lower employment rate (69%) compared to men (81%), after leaving the Armed Forces. Female Service leavers and employers interviewed for the research noted that women, unlike their male counterparts, undervalue their experience and may deselect themselves from roles they are suitable for.

Former army nurse and Military Women Employment Advisor Annette Berry comments, “military women are equally served, equally qualified, and sometimes even better qualified. I want us to be equally valued.”

The view from a military spouse

When you are a military spouse, employment comes with extra barriers. From gaps in employment from moving to requiring a flexible job so you can be the prime caregiver to your children, building a career as a military spouse is not an easy task.

Military spouse and Families Employment Advisor Sarah Penaluna notes, “Women wear many different hats – the professional hat, the primary caregiver hat, the spouse hat – and yet aren’t recognised in industry as working hard and getting the credit for all that they do.”

Over skilled, overqualified, yet undersold

“Female veterans, in the same way as many women, undersell themselves,” says Annette. “They don’t see their value.  They don’t recognise that they are usually over-skilled and overqualified and potentially underpaid.”

Recognising their value is an issue many women struggle with. It could be due to a lack of confidence in themselves and their abilities. It could be because they don’t recognise the transferable skills that they have. Whatever the reason, by selling themselves short women are increasing the likelihood of having lower levels of job satisfaction and are more likely to be earning less money than they deserve.

“I have clients who don’t have the confidence to apply for roles because they only tick half the boxes on the job description,” says Sarah. “But I take the time to go through their CV, make them realise the transferable skills that they have, and encourage them to go for it.”

What are your transferable skills?

Transferable skills are abilities that can transfer from one job to the next. They can be soft skills, such as communication, or hard skills, such as project management. Although related to employment, transferable skills are not only learnt from being in a job. They are also learnt by experiencing different life situations.

“Military spouses have transferable skills through being a military spouse,” Sarah notes. “They have to move every few years, and they need to have confident, open communication with people around them. When you consider what a military spouse has to do in the household on a daily basis, they have transferable skills in abundance. They have to be organised, not only for themselves but their children, if they have any, their household, and their spouse. They have to be reactive to situations, solve problems on a daily basis, planning their routine around their spouse’s leave. All these are skills that can transfer to the workplace”

Female service leavers also have transferable skills that they may not realise they possess. Employers of female service leavers have praised their abilities in areas like forward planning and preparation, administration and organisation, and gathering evidence and pulling it together in a coherent way.

“Military women’s time management is exceptional! They have multiple plates spinning simultaneously so they have to be,” says Annette. “Women, by nature, don’t want to have to go back and correct mistakes. They don’t want to give only 50%. They want to give 100% and get it right first time, every time.”

Take up space and be confident

Women have the relevant skills to find high-quality, sustainable employment, but confidence is key when finding and maintaining a job. Being confident in your skills and abilities is how you will be able to win the job that you deserve, negotiate your salary, and navigate the sometimes tricky world of civilian employment.

“Women need to be confident in themselves and know who they are. It’s important that they know their value because they are an asset to any company,” says Sarah.

Self-confidence is not something that comes easily, and there are plenty of ways that it can be tested in a workplace environment.

“There is a whole thing around the semantics of it,” explains Annette. “When women are in the workplace, they are not always seen to be the go-getters.”

In the workplace, if a man speaks up about an issue that is bothering him he may be called assertive. However, if a woman did the same thing she may be called feisty. These subtle changes in language can often be discouraging to women and prevent them from having the confidence to take up the space they deserve in their job.

“I get called forthright all the time, and feisty, and do you know what I own the space now. So when people say that I am forthright, I say yes I am,” declares Annette.

Alternative routes into employment

There is no straight road into employment, there are many routes that can fit around any schedule.

“There are a lot of ways for military women to get into employment. They can look at part-time work, which could turn into full-time work. They can look at volunteering. They can look at asking to shadow, which most people don’t consider. They can look at return-to-work programmes. Adult apprenticeships are excellent when you want to change direction in your employment,” advises Annette.

“Online classes, remote learning, remote degrees, night classes, there are so many ways that women, particularly military spouses, can upskill, but it is still them that have to adjust their schedule around their partner which is not always easy,” says Sarah.

The age barrier

The rising cost of living in the UK has prompted a rise in those over 50 re-joining the workforce. Women over 50 could encounter another barrier – their confidence.

“A lack of confidence can be amplified in older women. You’re not just being judged as a woman anymore, you’re being judged as an older woman,” says Annette. “Adding to that, they may have had knockbacks over the years and memories of the bias and sexism that existed in the workplace, especially in the 80s and 90s.”

Age should not be a factor when considering a potential employee and hiring someone older comes with an abundance of benefits, such as more experience and a greater skillset.

“A woman who is 40, for example, will have almost 30 years of working life left. She’s only worked, potentially, 22 already. The majority of her working life is still ahead of her. People need to forget the numbers, and look at the human being,” observes Annette.

Returning to work is daunting, especially if it has been a prolonged amount of time since you have worked and you have had negative experiences in the workplace. Many benefits to returning to work go beyond financial gain, including meeting new people, staying mentally and physically active, and learning new skills.

Annette’s top tips for getting into employment

1. Register with the Forces Employment Charity.

2. Sit down and think about what you are bringing to the table and what value you are bringing to the table. Remember to be kind to yourself when doing this. Reflect on what you have done in your life and how those skills transfer.

3. Look at your transferable skills.

4. Be open to change. What you think you want to do is not what you may end up doing.

5. Look at social media, look at LinkedIn, and see what people are saying about themselves. Learn to recognise those things in yourself.

Register with the Forces Employment Charity

Our Military Women programme caters to the needs of female veterans, offering them the practical tools that they need to find successful employment while helping with their emotional needs as well.

“The Military Women programme takes someone who is lacking in confidence and reminds them what they have done while serving. It’s about holding a mirror to them and reminding them how good they are and will be again,” explains Annette.

For military spouses, male or female, our Families Programme supports civilian spouses and partners of serving and ex-Forces personnel. Our team of dedicated Advisors are all military spouses themselves and have both the professional knowledge to help you find employment, and the personal experience as well.

“We have a very holistic, one-to-one approach, where we help with CVs, networking, interview skills, as well as building on confidence and self-belief,” says Sarah.

Register with the Forces Employment Charity today.

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