A study of the British Army: white, male and little diversity

The Army has always struggled to recruit ethnic minorities. There are entrenched issues and it is not just about racism.
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British Army soldier on exercise Flickr

It is one of the last bastions of power and hierarchy. New findings from LSE suggest the British Army is also a strong defender of white, male privilege with little evidence of diversity.

Ethnic minorities make up around 14 per cent of the UK’s population – projected to double by 2050, reflecting the changing face of Britain. The equivalent figure in the British Army is less than 3 per cent, languishing well below the UK Government’s target of double that number.

Why is it so hard to attract ethnic minorities to the British Army and what is the experience of the existing soldiers and officers who fall into this category?

A recently completed LSE PhD study by the Ministry of Defence’s Principal Occupational Psychologist based at the Army’s Recruiting and Training Division, Dr Balissa Greene, sheds some light on this issue.

Supported by the Army, Dr Greene has spent four years researching the experiences of Commonwealth soldiers and officers.  The majority of these soldiers are from ethnic minority backgrounds.  However the majority of officers from the commonwealth are white. Her findings reveal some clear issues in relation to race and rank.

“The experience of the Army is very different according to rank and ethnicity,” Dr Greene says. “Rank is the main factor but race also plays a part in how personnel are treated. A Commonwealth soldier from an ethnic minority background is likely to have a relatively unsatisfactory experience in the Army.”

Dr Greene conducted  focus groups, semi-structured interviews and examined organisational documents in the course of her research. The study concluded that Commonwealth soldiers were perceived as “problematic” because of clashes in values, cultures and expectations compared to their white, British counterparts.

“Commonwealth Army personnel tended to be more conservative than their British counterparts. This was reflected in differences in alcohol consumption, swearing, and family values, including a culturally nurtured, respect for elders among ethnic minorities.  Over the course of the study, they shared that some of the practices within the Army made them feel they did not belong, resulting in a lack of connection and commitment to the organisation,” Dr Greene said.

Commonwealth soldiers also felt they were treated differently from their British counterparts. They are subjected to different security checks and  additional visa requirements. They also face restrictions on the range of jobs available to them in the Army.

While higher-ranking ethnic minority Commonwealth officers reported a better Army experience, they were still expected to modify their behaviour and expectations in order to fit into the officer group.

Career progression is also an issue for many ethnic minority personnel, with some of them not feeling supported by their military superiors, most of whom are white, male and middle class and influenced by a strong personal bias.

“Being foreign certainly seems to limit a soldier’s career options within the Army. Foreign personnel from an ethnic minority group experience a  double disadvantage,” Dr Greene adds.

The lack of connection and trust between white, working class British Army soldiers and their ethnic minority Commonwealth counterparts also has repercussions for a common ‘soldier identity’. When fighting a common enemy in a dangerous situation they report that the common solider identity prevails but the clashes come to light on regular Army exercises and in everyday life, Dr Greene says.

“My research showed that both ethnic minority Commonwealth soldiers and their white British counterparts were less inclined to go the extra mile for their each other. They will do what is required of them but no more because they are operating with two different social identities and are not invested in each other.”

Dr Greene’s research also revealed an inconsistent approach in the Army to achieving a diverse workforce. While acknowledging the need to recruit and retain more British ethnic minorities in order to meet government targets, the Army has not adopted a long-term strategy to achieve this goal.

“The Army has always struggled to recruit ethnic minorities,” Dr Greene says. “There are entrenched issues and it is not just about racism. There seems to be an organisational position of maintaining the status quo, which reflects the rigidity and hierarchical structure of the Army.”

Dr Greene’s recently completed thesis is now being assessed at a senior level within the British Army to help improve the experience of soldiers and officers in the organisation.

The LSE PhD graduate has also been nominated for a British Psychological Society Practitioner of the Year award for her research.

Behind the article

Dr Balissa Greene has recently graduated with a PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her thesis, “The experience of foreign and commonwealth soldiers in the British Army: an exploration and methodological commentary” is available here.

Dr Greene undertook her PhD within LSE’s Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science, supervised by Dr Jan Stockdale.

Dr Greene has been the Assistant Director of Occupational Psychology in the Army Recruiting and Training Division and Sandhurst Group (Ministry of Defence) since 2012.