Guiding SPOs to the research out there
Being honest, there's not a lot of research out there about the challenges SPOs experience regarding their careers. Where there is some research (thank goodness for people like Rachel Gibble, Laura Goodwin, Sian Oram, Nicola T Fear, Christina Marie Wilson, Margaret C Harrel et al), the numbers of research subjects are limited; think under 20 women being studied to represent over 114,000. I understand there are challenges, but let's work together to add more voices to the work.
Here I've quoted parts of some research out there, to help SPOs be more informed about what happens to your career when you become connected to the military, and offer comfort knowing you're not alone, and hopefully stir you to get in touch to tell your story.
Reflecting on personal SPO experiences, and reviewing the research that's out there, themes have emerged which can be filtered for aiding SPO comprehension, garnering empathy and support in shared experiences, and to be used to communicate SPO needs and challenges for policy change to ultimately gain traction for the SPO Project.
This challenge is by no means unique to SPO life, as it permeates throughout the entire country, and beyond. Researching the life of an SPO does however show additional demands added to this already difficult mountain to climb, such as during times of deployment when an SPO can become a lone parent, therefore making nursery and school pick-ups, holiday cover, baby and toddler care at times, more pressured.
SPOs can experience a lack of being and feeling connected with others. This can be subconscious and conscious. It can be a literal disconnect from friends and family during postings, or an emotional detachment with others who don’t understand the SPO life and the challenges faced, or a lack of connection with the civilian world, away from military life. Connection may also be lost simply by not being physically with others, such as those who work remotely or are in remote postings.
SPOs can be, unintentionally or without awareness of, exploited within the workplace by employers, peers and superiors. These small omissions, misunderstandings, inability to empathise, can take their toll over time. Research also shows that again, unintentionally, exploitation may occur via the military as they can appear to assume that the SPO must put their military partner’s career before their own.
This tends to be at the core of most SPO career challenges and is usually prevalent in general life away from work. In the shadow of their partner’s work and career, and the pressures of the partner’s commitments which are expected by the military, SPO’s can feel a huge loss or lack of identity. Combined with the challenges of finding a fulfilling and rewarding job or career which fits around these commitments, a true, authentic understanding of who one is within, and beyond the military becomes extremely difficult to comprehend, nor pin down as any definite belief in, or definition of who an SPO is.
SPOs can feel intimidated by the military institution they are committed to from the moment they fell in love with a military person. The use of acronyms, military specific terminology, and slang, all work to alienate an SPO from their partner’s world, and often the world, the base they may live on. There’s also been cases of SPOs being afraid of speaking up about concerns as this could affect their military partner’s career, as they are seen as a dependant, and therefore a direct representation of their partner.
This intimidation can also be felt in the workplace, as an SPO compares themselves with colleagues and superiors who don’t face the SPO’s home and mental challenges. An SPO may believe that they’re not as up to speed, or that with the many changes in their jobs they’ve had because of postings, deployments, childcare issues and more, they’re not as qualified. This then extends to the intimidation felt when applying for work, with an SPO not applying for work they can do, as they feel deskilled, or have concerns about gaps in their CV or believe their short contract employment history, as they move about the country or world, simply looks bad to a potential employer.
Research shows with clarity that SPO’s often lack access to, and most commonly are just simply unaware of where they can get help. This lack of knowledge can often be exasperated by the communication styles of the military, not always using inclusive language by using acronyms, technical jargon and slang which alienates, or at minimum ensures an SPO is not engaged and therefore disconnects from the communication and its intentions, no matter how well meaning the communication is.
This ‘knowledge’ challenge can also manifest itself with employers and civilians not having good, sound information, and therefore understanding, of what an SPO is. Groups such as the Military Wives Choir have taken steps in introducing civilians to the life of an SPO, but this only touches the surface and can be seen as a broad stoke representation of a ‘Military Wife’ that can at times be seen as patronising, or at best limiting in its understanding of the life of an SPO away from the generally understood image of a wife coping with her husband away in a war zone.
Having a child, and therefore experiencing childcare issues is a regular challenge for an SPO, but research cannot assume that all SPOs have children. Whether they have children or not, there are additional challenges to the life of an SPO, regarding their inability to have a desired home life, such as having a ‘regular’ life in which to own pets responsibly or to establish social groups or attend regular clubs. These are clearly just a small set of examples, and there are plenty of SPOs out there responsibly looking after pets, but research does show that pet owning for an SPO does often require additional planning to work around military life.
Research highlights that SPOs often lack access to or are simply unaware of what's out there with regards to job training, as well as guidance on what could be an appropriate job, as well as finding opportunities to apply for available jobs. Such missed opportunities can contribute to feelings of fear, anxiety, embarrassment, and resentment in the workplace. A response to this challenge would be to guide employers, government ministers and the Ministry of Defence on identifying roles which an SPO could benefit from and thrive within, using their acquired SPO aptitudes, thus benefitting employers and SPOs alike. Importantly, such opportunities would need to be communicated in ways that an SPO can access, understand, and engage with.
We could delve into this subject and highlight literally hundreds of examples of where the patriarchal world puts additional pressures on women, and it is relevant to SPO Voice, because it is estimated that over 95% of SPOs are women. Plucking just a couple of hard-hitting examples of the challenges faced by women in the workplace we can cite, woman as primary carer (regardless of working hours), pay gaps, assumed roles in the workplace and glass ceilings.
Research shows a woeful lack of accurate SPO representation in the workplace and in civilian society. The challenge with this in the workplace is that employers don’t necessarily ‘get’ SPOs. The concept of a veteran or a reservist is a more tangible and spoken about entity, whilst an SPO still remains, for many, a mystery, or a stereotype. Improved representation at employer level, government ministerial and within the Ministry of Defence would help with the filtering down of more accurate representation of an SPO’s opportunities and challenges. Such education would help negate misunderstandings which can unintentionally contribute to an SPO being or feeling exploited, under-valued and becoming de-skilled.
As with identity, an SPO can often feel as though they live in the shadow of their partner’s worthy work. SPOs can often be praised for their partner’s work, as if the two people are combined as one, with the SPO taking on the merit of their partner’s work and career. Such praise can after a while begin to pull down self-worth, as if without their partner, the SPO’s merit isn’t as praiseworthy. This combined with the emotions of not getting where they want in their career due to postings, deployments, childcare challenges and more (see above), making SPOs already feeling a loss or lack of self-worth, can be catastrophic for mental wellbeing.
Be inspired to share your stories with this project to help change policies and make the lives of existing and potential SPOs out there, that much better.
Scroll through or filter by theme:
‘This study examines the employment decisions of heterosexual women married to military service members, and how their decisions to work or not work evolve over time within this context of uncertainty and high demands.’For some the pull that was exerted on the spouses was constant while for others the pull was amplified as the service member’s rank increased.’The most common…
‘The family and the military are both “greedy institutions” (Segal, 1986) and their competing demands can lead to conflict between work and family life for personnel.’The demands of the military can also extend to military families via experiences of relocation, separations and reunions, and deployment, resulting in poorer mental health and well-being among military spouses.’An additional, but under-researched, stressor for…
‘Spouses in professional careers (also typically the spouses of officers) described how they were intent on working during accompanied postings because of the meaning it provided them with in (re-)establishing an identity separate to that of military wife or mother.’Yet, they experienced difficulties planning or progressing their careers because of the frequency and duration of accompanied postings.’Spouses who were not…
‘All participants in this study had children. Many working spouses reported difficulties in balancing their family responsibilities with employment due to the cost and availability of formal childcare and – because of geographic distance from family members during accompanied postings – a lack of informal support.’For some spouses, this could lead to internalised conflict about whether or not they believed…
‘Many spouses described how their relationship with their husband led them to be ascribed the identity of a ‘military wife’ or dependent within the community.’By establishing connections and relationships with civilians, spouses were able to reassert their independence and resist the identities imposed on them through their relationship with their husband within their working environment:”… it’s nice to just be…
‘For other spouses, employment was less about providing an identity or status and instead related to a sense of purpose and structure to their lives. Such participants were largely content to take any form of employment that allowed them to feel they were productive outside the family home:”… I’ve been working six months since moving up here and I’ve taken…
‘Three types of social role were identified within this theme: employee, military wife and mother. Employment – and the identity of ‘employee’ obtained through work – was described by a number of participants as a positive influence on their well-being, enabling spouses to reclaim a sense of independence and self beyond the military community and contributing to their self-image.’Some spouses…
‘Participants [of the study] explained how employment contributed to an independent identity, enabling social connectedness, providing a sense of self-confidence and value.’ ‘It’s nice to just be you’: The influence of the employment experiences of UK military spouses during accompanied postings on well-being. Rachael Gribble, Laura Goodwin, Sian Oram, Nicola T Fear April 1, 2019
“A military model based on a notion of a working father and a stay-at-home mother looking after her husband and her children, willing to go anywhere the Armed Forces require, whenever they require it, is no longer realistic.” Living in our ShoesReport of a review commissioned by the Ministry of Defence | June 2020