The highest ranking nurse in the Royal Air Force has won damages after bringing a sexual discrimination case against the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
Group Captain Wendy Williams, 54, brought the case after being passed over for promotion in July 2011 in favour of a male doctor.
In what has been described as a landmark ruling, she had claimed the MoD had breached the Equalities Act 2010 by discriminating against her because of her gender when recruiting to a senior role for which she was recommended and fully qualified.
The MoD’s own figures show just six out of the 470 highest ranking jobs in the RAF were held by women last year, the tribunal found.
Group Capt Williams said she was pleased with the decision, saying: “Following this decision, I hope that nurses in the Royal Air Force and the wider Armed Forces will have the opportunity to aspire to, and attain, more senior posts.
“I hope that nurses will also gain due recognition for their leadership, commitment and professionalism.
“This judgment represents an opportunity for the Armed Forces to scrutinise internal processes and practices and shatter glass ceilings.
“It should be used as a platform to ensure that appointments are made with regard to merit and competencies, and not with regard to a person’s gender or their membership of a professional body.”
Group Capt Williams, a registered nurse and midwife who has served in the RAF since 1984, brought the case after being passed over by a promotion board.
A group captain since 2003, she applied in 2011 to be made the RAF candidate for the tri-service role of commodore of the Defence Medical Group.
But the candidature for the top “1*” level role went to Group Capt John Gaffney, who had three-and-a-half years less service in that rank than Group Capt Williams.
This was despite her being recommended for promotion to a senior non-nursing role based on her excellent history within the service.
The tribunal was told that it was the RAF’s procedure to fill medical 1* roles that were theoretically open to doctors and nurses only with doctors.
In its ruling, the tribunal panel, led by employment judge Veronica Dean, criticised the RAF for this practice and also the low number of women in top ranks overall - amounting to between 1% and 1.3% of the total.
The panel also included scathing criticism of several senior officers, including Air Vice-Marshal Chris Morris who gave the promotion board a “partisan and not unbiased” assessment of Group Capt Gaffney, who was under his command at the time.
Air Vice Marshal Mike Lloyd, who is now retired but was in charge of RAF personnel at the time, was also criticised for his lack of knowledge of discrimination legislation, something the tribunal found “incredulous”.
“Viewed with an objective eye against the job specification, we have considered all the evidence and find that for a number of reasons the claimant was not only equal to Group Captain Gaffney but that an objective review of her appraisals and those of Group Captain Gaffney would have led to the claimant being considered as the properly preferred candidate of the RAF,” it wrote in its ruling.
“While the respondents acknowledge that both the claimant and Group Captain Gaffney were competent candidates for the selection… the respondents assert that group Captain Gaffney was the most likely to succeed in competition with the other candidates put forward by the other services and therefore he was selected on that basis.
“We consider such a rationale to be entirely subjective and unsustainable in the evidence before us and we conclude that the claimant was not selected because of her sex.”
Group Capt Williams was supported by the Royal College of Nursing in her claim.
Janet Davies, its executive director of nursing and service delivery, said: “This is a landmark case, and bodes well for the future of nursing careers within the Armed Forces.
“It isn’t right for female staff to be placed at a disadvantage when they get to a senior level. The tribunal was clear - not only was Wendy Williams suitable to be put forward for this role, but an objective review would have led to her being considered as the preferred candidate.
“We hope that the Ministry of Defence will take on board the recommendations which come out of this tribunal so that the talents of female officers and nurses in particular are valued and harnessed in the future.”
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