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Event Report: Women in Defence UK 2019 Inaugural Conference and Shortlisting Awards Ceremony

On 3rd October, we were privileged to host 150 amazing women and men from the defence community at our inaugural Women in Defence UK conference and the fourth annual presentation of the Shortlisting Awards.

The day kicked off with a fun and unusual energiser session run by the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts (RADA). We were delighted with the gusto attendees gave to the session, who can now add ‘RADA trained’ to their CVs! We will be releasing the video from the session on the night of the Awards Dinner, 19th November, so make sure to check out our YouTube channel.

We then went into an insightful panel discussion, chaired by Airbus’s Director of UK Business Development, Sarah Macken, who highlighted the continued relevance of Emmeline Pankhurst’s famous emphasis on “deeds, not words” for women in defence and their allies. Our panellists – which included representatives from the Ministry of Defence, the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and the Army – then debated what they would do with £10 million to help women break through in the defence sector.

One of the key themes of the discussion was the need for thorough and credible research to understand the cultural and structural challenges that still remain and prevent the upward mobility of women in the defence industry. The need to unlock good quality, affordable childcare which fits with the defence industry’s locations and working hours was discussed. Another popular policy suggestion was to extend and properly resource mentoring for many more people at all levels. Several of the panellists talked about their own personal experiences of mentoring – Brigadier Sara Sharkey and Rear Admiral Andrew Burns both commented that being a mentor had been invaluable to them as individuals and leaders. If you’re interested in learning more about mentoring, look out for our mentoring scheme launching in the new year.

The panel also discussed the need for culture change across all defence organisations. In the words of Group Captain Toria McPhaden, “all leadership styles are equally valid and can be equally successful” – but this is not yet recognised enough in many defence organisations, particularly at senior levels and in defence leadership training courses. Similarly, we need to normalise ‘life friendly’ policies such as working from home and working compressed hours. Finally, the panel agreed on the importance of good networks and committed male allies to support women in defence.

After feasting on a delicious lunchtime spread, we headed into the shortlisting awards ceremony. The awards were presented by Admiral Tim Fraser CB, who opened with a thought-provoking speech about the importance of gender diversity, especially at senior levels in the armed forces. He highlighted how far the Armed Forces have come since he joined in 1980, when women weren’t even allowed to go to sea! You can find photos of the awards ceremony on Women in Defence UK social media channels.

The final event of the day was an inspirational keynote speech from Cat Little, DG Finance. She opened with an account of her own career journey, from studying medieval history at Birmingham University (where she gained a Brummie twang and saw first-hand how powerful “passion and belief” can “lead to great things happening”) to becoming DG Finance at the Ministry of Defence. She then presented a strong business case for diversity and inclusion, based on 4 key arguments: diverse organisations make better decisions, are happier places to work, are more innovative and are more objective.

Cat Little ended with three ‘reasons to be positive’. Firstly, change starts at the top and senior leaders at the Ministry of Defence are doing much more to make the Ministry of Defence diverse and inclusive – she has already noticed a real shift in the number of women in senior positions in the few years that she has been DG Finance. Secondly, the Ministry of Defence is one of the most engaged, positive and can-do organisations in the UK. Finally, our ultimate mission – defence – is deep inside the DNA of every single one of us.

We left the conference buzzing with renewed optimism and excitement, plenty of new ideas, and a strengthened network of like-minded women and men committed to improving diversity and inclusion while defending our nation. We’re already looking forward to next year’s conference!

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