Women In Defence Technology: Seizing Opportunities

On 11 April techUK and the Women in Defence Network co-hosted a panel discussion on the issues around women working in the UK’s defence technology sector. The panel debate was attended by over 70 people from across the techUK and Women in Defence memberships and featured a stellar panel line up. The panellists were:

  • Angela Owen, PA Consulting, Founder of the Women in Defence Network and Chair of the event
  • Air Marshal Julian Young, Chief of Defence Materiel - Air, DE&S
  • Brigadier Sara Sharkey, Head of Applications Services and DevOps, ISS
  • Sarah Minett, Managing Director, Rockwell Collins UK
  • Amelia Gould, Head of Engineering - Combat Systems, BAE Systems Naval Ships

Over the 90 minute discussion the panel covered a multitude of issues, a number of which are noted below.

Where do women currently thrive and what can be learned from this?

Finance and commercial roles are the two areas where recruitment efforts within the defence industry have experienced the most success and MOD is very successful at getting women into the project management in DE&S.

Within industry women tend to be best represented in many of the shared services (HR, finance, commercial etc.). This is not replicated in the engineering side of industry, which is demographically heavily male-orientated and much older than other areas.

The panel noted that there are two pockets of the defence digital industry that have slightly better gender diversity, those being synthetic environments and software design. These roles employ skills that are not defence-specific and works with these skills can move sideways from a different sector quite easily. Transferable skills are a possible indicator as to why these areas have had comparatively better female uptake.

Getting people into IT and digital jobs through career changers schemes has proven successful at getting women into technology. Capability and knowledge transfer are also increasing in frequency within industry as companies become more willing to move people into different roles, often those of software engineering and digital responsibilities.

The Language of Defence

A recent study found that the use of masculine themed words in job advertisements have an effect upon women that discouraged them from applying for those roles. The study found that words such as “active”, ”challenging”, and ”ambitious”, all masculine themed words discouraged women from applying for the role. Whereas use of words such as “trusted”, “committed”, and “collaborative”, all female descriptors, showed more engagement with the job advertisement. A lack of gender balance in the language that is used in job advertisements and promotion criteria, to name just two, could be having a much greater effect than we think.

This also affects the imagery that is used, with images of large kit and platforms appealing much more to men, just as images of groups of people appeal much more to women.

STEM Education

Lots of work with local community in schools and colleges to understand what puts off girls from getting into STEM subjects and possibly working in the engineering and technology side of UK Defence. Local and national companies and organisations work to increase enthusiasm about taking up STEM subjects and go on to careers in the technology and Defence industries. The opportunity to work with cutting edge technologies that are used for lifesaving purposes can be a large draw for people thinking about a career.

Senior leaders within MOD are working hard to increase the gender diversity within the military and to better understand how Defence can actively appeal to a traditionally hard-to-reach group within society. The panel agreed that schools must be the focus now, engaging right at the start of the pipeline to set the right tone that Defence is a real option for young women.

Defence has the opportunity to get more involved with a number of national campaigns and initiatives that work to increase STEM participation in early years. The Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET’s) initiative 9% is not enough and WISE People Like Me Campaign are examples of industry neutral activities that Defence could support more openly, thus reaching a new audience through established networks.

It was discussed and agreed that a prime indicator of success in this area will be the rise in general interest in STEM subject within the young population (particularly physics and maths). This does not specifically have to translate across directly to interest in defence technology, however it is clear that the fundamental interest in STEM subjects is vital for creating a more specialist pipeline that feeds defence technology workers. This would signify a cultural shift within society and the education system that better promotes the benefits of STEM careers. Recording a change like this would require knowledge of the current situation, in as much detail as feasible, in order to create a baseline to work from. This is a task that techUK might be well positioned to take on.

The Image of Defence

15 years of conflict has changed the perspective that people have of the military and the defence industry. When going into schools it may be more productive to talk about the other work that the military does every day around the globe; anti-piracy, anti- smuggling, humanitarian and disaster relief, and training for example. Young women may also be energised to hear more about the technologies (digital and otherwise) that are in use by the military, and what will be needed in the future as a way of encouraging them to engage more with Defence.

Role Models and Mentors

The panel agreed on the importance of having more male mentors for female mentees. Male mentors can speak from experience of how to succeed in a male-dominated environment, even as it attempts to transition towards more gender diversity.

The benefits of being a mentor are actually quite extensive and they are arguably just as beneficial for the mentor as they are for the mentee. The UK Defence technology industry has the opportunity to make mentoring a much more formalised and expected practice than it currently is.

Mentoring and role models in the workplace are dealt with in a variety of different ways, both formal and informal. Informal relationships can result in the sharing of tips, guidance and instilling confidence through information and experience sharing with peers and colleagues. These relationships can also be a fantastic tool for learning more about the organisation you work in and how much they are willing to invest in their workforce as well.

Role models should also be used to showcase the broad range of careers that are available within the Defence industry, and the diversity of people that already fill them. The ability to show examples of people with similar backgrounds that women can directly relate with is potentially a big asset to recruitment effort.

Reverse mentoring was discussed by the panel and the audience as a good option for placing employees and colleagues in a less traditional relationship with a different dynamic. These work best when they are focussed on a particular theme to help guide the conversations, rather than asking for general feedback and thoughts of those who work for the most senior participant.

Senior Representation within MOD

The culture of promotions ‘in my image’ has, and continues to affect the gender balance when looking at progression to senior ranks. There remains the unconscious bias evident in promoting people who looks, sounds, thinks and acts like you, and therefore may be easier to know that they will do a good job. This situation is hugely impacted and influenced by the lack of female role models in senior ranks, a situation which has the potential to change incrementally over the coming years. This is also prevalent within industry, as some companies will tend to have a similar culture of ‘in my image’ hiring and promotions that result in similar characteristics across their workforce.

The Army and industry members, notably BAE Systems, are actively addressing the issue of gender balance throughout all levels as well as how it can apply inclusive leadership principles within the command.

The current drive across the whole of the MOD for innovation is a campaign that these issues could potentially play into quite well. The task of ‘doing more with less’ inevitably leads any organisation to better utilise what human resource is already available to them, and also demands that they become better at attracting talent from other areas. This is a prime opportunity to make the case that the skill sets held by women and the benefits that greater gender diversity could bring are worth investing in through an ‘innovation’ approach.

Expectations of modern work

Some workplaces still rigidly require full-time workers who can commit to the role in a way that someone who is returning to work after having a child may not be able to do. This approach from businesses directly negatively impacts qualified and experienced women from re-entering a profession that is in desperate need of them. Head-hunters and agencies also tend to promulgate this culture and will not accommodate people who have had extended career breaks.

There are a number of guides from unions and not-for-profit organisations online that advise on how companies can be more open to flexible working and encourage a workplace that better supports women returning to work. The panel noted that there also remains a culture that not enough people actively question the requirements of a role and thus miss out on the chance to apply for a job that might actually be more flexible than it first appears.

With specific attention to many digital roles such as software and application development these are largely tasks that can be done online at any time of day and largely from any location. Roles such as these that can benefit from using remote working technologies theoretically lend themselves to flexible working patterns very well. When considering the demands of ‘millennials’, both male and female, the case for flexible working to be taken up by more of industry becomes even stronger.

If the panellists could change one thing to improve opportunities for women, what would it be?

  • Better information about the journeys that are available for women to follow or to learn from. Technical and digital roles don’t all require you to work your way from the bottom and more information on the variety of career routes is important.
  • The challenge of making returning to work needs to be addressed within the MOD – it would seem this is becoming easier for industry to deal with, and MOD should look at learning from these changes.
  • Increasing the aptitude for science and STEM within primary school teachers would greatly affect the future pipeline of young women who may become energised to work in STEM careers.
  • Encouraging women in senior leadership positions to set an example and working in a way that is flexible enough for other women to do the same. This includes instigating flexible working practices that are more accessible for returners and those with families.
  • Increasing awareness of all these issues within the male population in the MOD and defence industry. Creating male advocates in senior positions who have the power to influence those working their teams and companies.

techUK is keen to expand our work in this area and would encourage our members to get in contact with Seema.Patel@techUK.org if you would like to discuss co-hosting an event addressing these issues in another event.


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