Lesley Woods on what it’s really like to be a woman working in the forces today

Lesley Woods formal pic

Lesley Woods lives a somewhat double life: she’s both a reserve officer in the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, working in the media operations squadron, and she’s also chief communications officer, external campaigns, for the Ministry of Defence.

This sees her spend 30—40 days on deployment in uniform and the rest of her working life in Whitehall. She is passionate about how far the military has come in terms of considering the wellbeing of its employees, particularly women. As a result, she’s on a mission to “bust myths” about what it’s like for a woman to work in the forces today.

We talked to her to find out about how the military is overturning misperceptions and the raft of new wellbeing related policies being introduced, from breastfeeding to menopause.

When I think of the armed forces, I imagine a culture which is about being tough and one which is quite difficult mentally, especially if you’re a woman operating in what appears to be a man’s world. I know my perception has been affected by media stories of bullying, for example. To what extent is this stereotype true?

There’s zero tolerance of bullying and harassment today. People are now supported to come forward and say when something has happened that they’re not happy with and they felt affected by.

Of course, there are pockets where people behave in undesirable ways, as there are in corporate life, but we’re now very conscious of them and they’re weeded out.

How’s your mental health been on deployment, as you’ve served in war torn countries and I imagine that can take an emotional toll? Were you supported?

The first time I went to Afghanistan, I was scared. Really scared. I was deployed on my own because when you go as a media officer you aren’t part of a formed unit. You go on your own with your camera.

I saw some horrendous things. I was filming a documentary on the military hospital in Camp Bastion and was watching helicopters come back with people who’d had their limbs blown off.

Because I was filming – and this is something I learnt later  – and looking through a camera lens, I was emotionally detached from the scene. So initially I thought I was fine. It was only when I put my camera down and sat in my tent that the traumatic reality hit me. It made dramatic TV footage, but the experience affected me mentally for a while.

That’s why when you come back from an experience like this that you’re put through a period of ‘decompression’. You go somewhere, usually like Cyprus, on your way home to rest and relax for a few days. Here you can chat to your buddies, get out of uniform and have a bit of time in the sun – so you’re not going straight back.

But, yes, it can be difficult and there have been examples when people had trouble adjusting afterwards. There was quite a spate of high suicide rates at one point in the military. So there is a pattern of difficulty with mental health. And this is what we’re trying to now overcome with these new policies and new tools. It’s also why we’re trying to open conversations about mental health and wellbeing.

Can you tell me about some of these initiatives?

We have a mental health programme called HeadFit, which was launched three years ago, and is accessible by mobile phone. It’s available to everyone that is serving, both civilian and military. It’s approved by a psychologist and was written in consultation with the Royal foundation Heads Together.

We’re also having many more conversations now about how people feel emotionally, not just physically.

You’ve talked before about the importance, to you, of being able to be your ‘authentic self’ at work. What have you learned about this through your experiences in the military?

The military is starting to embrace this idea that you can bring your whole self to work, which means I don’t have to be this scary ‘boss lady’, which I felt pressure to be in the past.

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I used to find when I put my uniform on, it would change my personality but I’m actually naturally very collaborative. Going against who I was made me feel unhappy, as well as not setting a good example. It took me a long time to be my authentic self in uniform because I didn’t think it would be embraced but it has been. People even refer to my ‘Lesley-isms’ now!

You’ve said before that you chose not to have a family. Is having a family a barrier to being in the military for women?

It’s a perceived barrier that’s not actually there. We now have new policies in place. For example, we just launched a breastfeeding policy. Nursing mums can return to work and be supported with a dedicated nursing room. Breastfeeding, and the fact you need to allow women breaks to express milk, has been explained to all and the chain of command. You can also take shared parental leave.

You’ve also been open about your experience of the menopause at work, haven’t you? What was this like in the military?

I got brain fog and was not as cognitively sharp as I was used to being. I kept failing my fitness test because I just couldn’t run. I thought that I couldn’t be the only one, so I started having conversations with other ladies of a certain age around my military base. They were saying the same things like ‘it’s like running through treacle!’ and ‘my joints hurt and I don’t know why!’.

It took a while before the doctor diagnosed the menopause (at first I was diagnosed with depression because my dad was dying at the time). I’ve used my experience to raise awareness and we’re now working with Wellbeing of Women, the UK charity.

How do your male colleagues react when you talk about the menopause?

Every time I use the word ‘menopause’ I can see subtle shuffling away and the facial expressions saying “how can I get out of here?”!

I just keep using the word until it becomes normal. After all, nobody flinches at the word ‘gay’ now. We even have uniformed personnel taking part in Gay Pride. They are supported to have their own forums and networks across the bases. It’s a far more inclusive culture today.

What about periods? Are they ever talked about in the military, as they must be tricky to have sometimes when out in the middle of nowhere?

One of the new policies is that when you go away overseas you get free sanitary products. But, more importantly, when you’re in the desert, you also get a way of disposing of them because you can’t go burying them in the sand. So they provide women with little bags that can be disposed of safely.

Is there anything else you’ve done to raise awareness of women’s health in your male environment?

We’ve just published a ‘Woman’s Health Handbook’ for everybody in the military. The idea is for men who manage women to understand better things like periods and the menopause and how it might affect them at work.

What’s your vision for the future when it comes to women’s health and wellbeing in the military?

To keep starting conversations to bust the myths about what it’s like to be a woman in the military. The military is moving with the times but the perception hasn’t caught up. That’s what I’d like to focus on over the next few years.

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