07 Mar 2022

Women in Leadership: An Interview with Thales UK’s Sam McBriar

This International Women's Day, Sam McBriar, Director of Maritime Strategy and Marketing for Thales UK, discusses her career development, some of the challenges women face when progressing in a traditionally male-dominated space, and the importance of STEM for women and girls as a pathway to senior leadership in the technology industry.

Tell me about your career so far, and how that’s led to working for the UK maritime business unit at Thales?

I’ve worked in Aerospace, Defence and Security companies for 25 years. As a graduate materials engineer, it’s been fascinating taking that STEM background and diversifying my career into project management, business development, strategy and marketing roles. It has always been important to me to work in technically challenging and meaningful industries, regardless of the functional discipline. Very early in my career, I supervised the repair of an RAF Tristar engine at Brize Norton, went to sea on a Type 23 frigate with the Romanian Navy, and was the first female chair of a European Technology transfer working group.

I was attracted to a strategic growth role in the Thales Maritime business because I knew the sector and industrial landscape well from my previous experience. We are a genuinely international company and very successful at exporting, so I wanted that experience in an area I could add value to.

How have Thales supported your development and career progression?

When I joined Thales, the role was a significant step up so I spent the first two years developing. It was my first role on the board of a business unit and I found that having a broad background was helpful in operating at that level. Since then, I’ve connected with a range of leaders in the business for mentoring and advice, particularly about operating in an International company.

I have also taken on development projects outside my role, and am now seen as a thought-leader on autonomy, trusted to lead customer engagement on digital topics. One of the best developmental things I have done is to talk at events, even when I don’t feel like an expert. Additionally, Thales has encouraged me to take up an external role with Maritime UK as a Maritime Skills Commissioner, working on STEM skills challenges.

How can we encourage more women to pursue senior leadership roles in their career?

We need to think about what switches girls and women off from leadership roles. The gender balance in the STEM pipeline is obviously a problem, and we need to do more to highlight role models and experiences at every step of their education and career. I don’t think girls are encouraged enough to engage with STEM subjects; perhaps with more context they would be compelled to persevere with perceived “hard subjects”,  keeping their options open for a STEM career.

There is also still a belief for many women that family commitments and leadership roles aren’t compatible. When our children were born 10-15 years ago, there was no option of paternity leave for my husband. Whilst that is not the case anymore, until this balance becomes more normalised, this belief will persist. Of many of the women I have worked with, this is often their number one concern, as it was for me.

There is also the consideration of the menopause hitting women at an age where many are already in senior leadership roles, or making decisions about advancing. More support is definitely coming into the workplace, but it will take time for culture to adapt.

What advice did you receive early in your career that has stayed with you?

You will never be ready for the next role.