Four hundred and fifty years after the founding of the modern Royal Navy, a woman will take command of a major British warship on Tuesday for the first time. Women have captained smaller vessels, likesuch as minesweepers, but not the large frigates and destroyers, which are regarded as the bulwarks of the fleet. Breaking this significant glass ceiling is Commander Sarah West, who is taking charge of the modern Type 23-frigate, HMS Portland, currently in Rosyth.
The Royal Navy described it as a historic moment, one that may help to encourage more women to consider a career in the armed forces, where the gender imbalance is more than 10 to one.
West, 40, was trained as a warfare officer and has spent time in the Gulf with HMS Sheffield; she also helped to coordinate the navy’s contribution to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
“The navy has had women commanders before, but none of them have made that leap up to the big warships,” said a defence official. “It is a significant step up, but she definitely has the experience to do this.”
West will have a crew of 185 answering to her, and once the Portland has undergone a £20m refit, it will most likely end up on patrol in the Gulf, or in the South Atlantic.
In a statement, West said the appointment was “the highlight of my 16 years in the navy so far … it is a challenge I am fully trained for and ready to undertake.”
In recent years, the navy has taken steps to make the service more appealing to women, and to open up jobs that were previously for men only.
Six months ago, the defence secretary, Philip Hammond, lifted the ban on women working on submarines, and a number have since volunteered to undergo training.
More recently, another naval commander, Sue Moore, 43, became the first woman to command a squadron of minor war vessels, the First Patrol Boat Squadron (1PBS).
But although the navy is often thought of as the most progressive of the services – it was the first to recruit women (Wrens) in 1916 – the number of women who have achieved high ranks remains low.
“These top jobs are difficult and demanding, and the sacrifices you have to make are considerable,” said Rear Admiral Chris Parry, a former commander of HMS Gloucester and HMS Fearless. “
This may have put women off going for the top jobs or staying in service. I wish her good luck. It is a great honour, especially at a time when the Royal Navy has fewer ships.
“I hope Commander West will be judged for what she does as a senior naval officer, and not because she is a woman. I always tried to be gender blind.”
In an interview last year, Ursula Brennan, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence, told the Guardian that the armed forces needed to make more progress in recruiting, keeping and promoting women.
She said the top brass needed “to get on with it” and put women in the most senior military posts.
[Canadian Navy recruits Denis Kuvaev / Shutterstock.com]