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Army's top woman gives first interview

Brigadier Moffat is the highest ranked woman in the British Army. She has excelled in all kinds of things during a near 30-year career that …

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Brigadier Nicky Moffat

Brigadier Nicky Moffat [Picture: Martin Godwin, Copyright The Guardian]

Brigadier Moffat is the highest ranked woman in the British Army. She has excelled in all kinds of things during a near 30-year career that might still take her to the very top of the military.

But giving interviews is not one of them. In fact, this is her first - and there are certain things she wants to make absolutely clear.

She is not a ‘whinger’, and she doesn’t much like people who are. She has not played the ‘gender card’. Now a Brigadier, Nicky Moffat, 49, has obviously faced obstacles during her climb up the tree, but she refuses to call them obstacles.

In fact, she prefers not to talk about them at all:

Women do not need to be treated with kid gloves,” she said. “It is very easy for people to attribute a lack of success or failure, or an occurrence, to hang it on to something like gender or colour. I have never really liked that approach.

But the military is struggling to encourage more women to join, and Brigadier Moffat, it seems, has recognised that she can play an important role inspiring and mentoring junior female officers.

Brigadier Moffat has, she says, been quietly fighting for equality in the ranks, though her methods may not have won her the immediate appreciation of her peers.

In the past, she felt that commanding officers were too kind to women who broke rules, or lost equipment:

In situations where men and women were guilty of the same offence, some officers would award the woman a lighter punishment. Men would get hammered, and the women wouldn’t.

It comprehensively undermined the credibility of women. Some might have played on it and been happy to have a lesser punishment, but it wasn’t good.

I remember telling the officer this was not the best way of dealing with it. I don’t like distinctions based on gender.

The men, she says, were ‘being too soft’:

They didn’t know how to manage a woman. A woman could potentially burst into tears and the man wouldn’t quite know how to deal with it.

We have matured considerably since then, and we have much clearer rules over the equal application of discipline.

That isn’t all that has changed:

Twenty-six years ago, women were trained separately, we weren’t integrated, we were treated differently, and we were paid less.

My view now, in retrospect, is that this institutionally undermined the contribution women could make and the way in which they were viewed.

All those institutional barriers have been removed… women are serving in positions of very considerable risk and they are fighting and they are dying and they are being wounded alongside men.

Brigadier Moffat joined the Army from the University of Liverpool where she ‘almost got booted out’ for spending so much time at the Officer Training Corps.

She joined the now defunct Women’s Royal Army Corps, and then a series of promotions led her to command at three levels. During that time she was deterred from doing some supposedly ‘men only’ jobs, and was mocked behind her back by men who didn’t believe she could cut it as a tactics instructor.

She also had a spell as military private secretary to the then Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon.

Brigadier Moffat believes there is ‘no better time to join the Army’ if you are a woman, though the statistics suggest women still need a lot of convincing.

Women account for only 10 per cent of the Armed Forces, and eight per cent of the Army, despite changes that have made it easier for women to take maternity leave and career breaks.

Brigadier Moffat says the ‘new employment model’ the MOD is devising should make things better still, though she accepts that she is guilty of ‘horrible gender stereotyping’ when she explains why the Armed Forces may always be dominated by men:

Women in general don’t necessarily want to work in that particular area. What do we do? We do war-fighting. This isn’t helped by the fact that society trots out pink Barbie dolls for women, and Action Men with rifles for men.

However, Brigadier Moffat wants more women to join the military and doesn’t believe they should be deterred by its macho image.

Women, she believes, can do it all - just don’t join thinking the military owes you special favours:

I don’t feel that gender has been an issue for me. I don’t care if you are male or female, or black or white, gay or straight, right side of the tracks or the wrong side. I care what you deliver.

To be fair, some people have been discriminated against, but I have not felt this applied to me.

You are only going to get on in life if you push the door a bit and work hard and you overcome challenges and barriers. I am not a whinger. You don’t get on in a team if you are a whinger.

It is not just about being good enough, you have to be better than the competition.

Brigadier Moffat dismisses a question about whether a woman might, within her lifetime, become Chief of the Defence Staff - the UK’s most senior military officer.

She doesn’t like the question, nor does she want to say whether women should be allowed to serve in small, front line combat units - the last major area in the Army that is off-limits to women.

With the former, a woman will get to the top if she has earned it, she says, and with the latter it’s a matter of effectiveness.

But perhaps there is another reason why Brigadier Moffat bridles at some issues - reflecting something important about the way women think they need to get on in the Armed Forces, or any big institution.

They want to fit in, they don’t want to cause a stir, or complain about their lot.

Brigadier Moffat pauses:

I think you are right. I only know what I know, which is 26 years in the Army.

This article by Nick Hopkins first appeared on on 11 January 2012.

Published 13 January 2012