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In Conversation with AVM James

With an award-winning advert challenging gender stereotypes and the first woman promoted to 3* rank in the history of the UK’s Armed Forces, the RAF is definitely doing something right. We caught up with their Gender Advocate, Air Vice Marshal Bunny James, to find out exactly what.

Air Vice Marshal James, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview with us today. First up, I wanted to ask you about your role as Gender Advocate for the RAF, which you hold in addition to your role as Air Officer Commanding 22 Group. What does being a 'gender advocate' involve for you?

Nice to talk to you. I see gender advocacy as an additional support, an additional way of levering alternative networks and getting out and accessing the areas that I can reach into because of the Group I command and my position within the Air Force Senior Leadership Team. There are lots of links to youth outreach, technical skill, development of people etc, they all tie in quite nicely.

And it also means being visible and occasionally noisy as required with different networks. I’ll use everything, for example my time on twitter, to encourage gently, to point out what makes more sense for us as a Service and to use all the different things we’re doing to normalise the gender balance message.

Absolutely, as you say, it’s a really visible role. In your time as gender advocate, there must have been some who’ve said to you “how come you’re a man and acting as gender advocate?”. What do you say in response to them?

Clearly, the gender advocate could be a woman. And let me say there are so many brilliant role models and champions that are women within the Service at every rank and every level.

So I see the gender advocate more as an LGBT ally type role that sits at a level at which there is access to the Senior Leadership Team and also those we interact outside of the Service. We took a conscious decision as I came into the job to try this, to generate a discussion. I signpost, I encourage, I point out things both from the side-lines and within. And I also talk back to, frankly, white middle-aged men and say ‘What don’t you get about this and how important the subject is?’.

I’d say it’s been helpful. And that’s not to say it’s the only way, nobody is suggesting that. But for those who tend to say ‘Why are you not a woman?’, you only have to look around most organisations at the moment to see that as a man, at this level, you have nearly every opportunity available to you. And patently that just isn’t true yet for women.

Thank you for that. And absolutely I think that’s the reason why at the Women in Defence Awards some of our categories are open to men as well, to recognise the really excellent work that gender advocates, people encouraging women into STEM and promoting gender balance in defence do in this space, as well as all the brilliant women doing the work there too.

Next up, what do you think has been the most important change with respect to gender balance in the RAF during the time you've been Gender Advocate?

I think you’re seeing an improved sustained narrative. And that narrative is increasingly backed up by action and obvious areas where you can see improved opportunity and balance. You’re seeing good green shoots. In some places you’re seeing much better than that, in others it’s still a case of carrying on with that message until it becomes normal.

And that sounds an odd thing to say but one of the criticisms we get is ‘Why are you even talking about this?’. Sometimes that comes from women saying ‘I don’t want to be different and have this pointed out all the time’, and I absolutely accept that. In fact I remember talking to Angela, and her telling me that you don’t ultimately want to have a ‘Women in Defence Awards’, but eventually we just want a ‘People in Defence Awards’. But as we both know, we’re just not there yet.

That’s a really important point. And on that theme of this sustained narrative increasingly leading to real action, I think a great example here has got to be Air Marshal Sue Gray’s recent promotion 3* level, the first woman in the history of the Armed Forces to reach this rank. There must be women in the Army and Royal Navy of equal ability, yet it happened first in the RAF – do you think there’s a particular reason for that?

There are of course excellent women in all three Services and indeed in the Civil Service, looking at the Whole Force.

But for the RAF I think there’s probably something in history, with where we started. You know, I don’t have great data to support this, but I think that being a relatively young service, and looking back to the Second World War, we came from everywhere. We immediately needed people with the skills, it didn’t matter where they came from. And also certain trades were and remained more attractive to women, so we generated a certain degree of volume.

It’s interesting that we celebrate it, as we should, but conversely it’s shocking isn’t it that it’s taken until 2019 for this to happen. If you look back into the not-too-distant histories of the Services there were so many things that ruled people out, either deliberately or indeed unconsciously. And it’s only in the last 20, 30 years or so where we’ve started to get rid of those discriminating policies and behaviours, thus, we’ve seen more women start to come through as we’ve grown them through the organisation. And I think we’ve probably just seen a bit more of that in the Air Force than anywhere else to date.

Thank you for that. Really interesting to think about those reasons. And another area where there’s been a lot of hype, and quite rightly so, is around the RAF's recent winning of Channel 4's Diversity in Advertising Award 2018 for its powerful, excellent advert that challenges gender stereotypes, trying to show that women can be defined by their actions, and not by clichés. Why is challenging stereotypes so important and how can we all do it better in our workplaces across Defence?

So of course I agree, it was a great advert. It was clever. It talked to what we discussed earlier, the narrative, the ongoing desire for this to be normal. Saying this is who we are. These are the skills and competences we’ve got.

And as you say, the advert was a great example of challenging stereotypes and it is still so important to do that. Because in society and in the services, albeit less than in the past, we’ve still got biases. So that’s why we need to challenge stereotypes, and how that manifests in treating people, whether it was intentional or unintentional.

But let me just say too that the advert was also designed to say ‘This is Who We Are in the RAF in 2019’ more broadly too. Often when I go out and speak to people I find that they have a certain view of the military, never mind women in the military, they might even be thinking ‘Why would a woman do that?’. So then it’s about saying ‘Hang on a minute, what is it that you think we are?’.

And challenging that stereotype is particularly crucial if we want to access the diversity of thought that comes with diversity of gender across the nation. Why would we not want to access the most widespread skill that we can? And that’s not just a marketing trick, it’s a reality. It gives us a better Service.

Now, it would seem remiss of me not to mention our new Secretary of State for Defence, who brings with her the Women and Equalities portfolio too. In her introductory Town Hall at the Ministry of Defence, she mentioned the RAF Returners’ Programme as a great example of work being done to address gender balance in our Armed Forces. I thought it would be interesting to hear a little more from you about what that programme is doing and why it’s a good example.

It seems there are relatively common time points for some people, and particularly women, where they might choose to leave work – it could be children, it could be family, it could be moving with a job.

What we wanted to do with recruitment was not lose people with key skills at a mid-level or age, people who are actually almost at a peak of power as it were. At the time, we had everything from policies to process that seemed to make it a logical choice for people to step away for good and therefore we were losing that. The programme is about reversing that, asking people ‘Can you come back? On what basis would you like to come back? How much can you do? And by the way, what have you been doing while you’ve been away?’. It’s about how we bring people back in and offer them something worthwhile, harnessing from them an immediately higher skill level than someone that you’re training from scratch.

For us there’s a degree of business common sense, but at the same time it’s about giving people all kinds of opportunities. And this programme isn’t only targeted at women, it’s for re-entry for all skill, but of course it particularly talks to that cohort who felt they had to go. We’re showing we’re now a more flexible service, one that’s asking ‘What would work for you?’

Absolutely. Thank you. Now, we've talked quite a bit about the positives, and the really excellent initiatives the RAF have taken, and how things are changing for the better. But, there is undoubtedly a lot left to do – so in your view, what still needs to change?

Change is persistence. There’s something about maintaining the energy and the thought that’s going into initiatives like flexible service and the advert.

To give one example, we’re now thinking about advertising and the language we use that perhaps attracts different groups. We’re looking at our job adverts, asking if they’re incorrectly worded or targeted at men, and thinking about how we can change that so it more accurately targets women, whilst still describing the same job. And there’s plenty more of this ‘bespoking’ type work that’s required.

But this stuff is happening. We’re not just talking about it, we’re doing it. So we’re starting to get better at all these areas, but there’s the need for persistence and maintaining this aim, until we can really turn round and say ‘Let’s have a People in Defence Award’.

That’s a really important point, that persistence. And let’s look at something a little bit different now. Anyone that follows you on Twitter, as Women in Defence does of course, can't help noticing your keen support of RAF sport. So I just thought it would be interesting to hear your views on how sport can help us promote gender balance in the Armed Forces, if indeed it can?

Quite! Well part of my role as the AOC 22 Group is Head of Sport, and is the reason for lots of content you see on my Twitter, including about RAF sport, the Red Arrows and STEM outreach. The nice thing is that they all tie together.

Sport is interesting though because it’s one of those things we all can access and all can do. We have some excellent role models and champions in this space. On our elite team we’ve got internationals playing women’s rugby and there’s a young lady who’s one of the world’s best powerlifters for her age group, who has broken multiple records. These are inspirational people in their own right, no different to men. And sport can be quite a good leveller in that respect.

But, there are issues still. Where we can start to make a difference is not just by having a women’s team but by treating people the same. Can the teams be treated the same? Can the teams play in the same location? Rather than a situation where the men play in one place but the women are somewhere else because “they’re not as good”. No. So we’re actively looking at how we make the sports that haven’t historically been women’s sports at least accessible. You can’t make people play sport, but let’s at least make sure it’s accessible. And if we’re going to have quality play in quality locations the same should be true for women as it is for men. It wasn’t historically and there’s been some really good work done in that space, particularly around the sports that are very visible and active, e.g. football, rugby, skiing.

On top of that, sport is also a great way to talk to youngsters, and it also ties into the healthy lifestyle aspect the military is keen to promote. And it’s very good for mental health. So again, the spin off and the benefits from sport are great conversations for everybody, but also great conversations to have regarding women in sport and gender balance across defence.

Definitely. And once again it’s really great to see the RAF being so proactive in this area and also, as you say, to bring out the links between all these different things. Finally, I can’t neglect to mention the fact that the RAF is partnering Women in Defence UK for our 2019 Awards, for the Inclusive Teamwork category, which is very exciting. So could I just get a word or two from you on why nominating incredible women, men and teams working in defence of the nation really makes a difference?

I’m really glad you said women, men and teams, because I think there’s a place for all of it. There’s something important about recognition for those doing great things, making an effort and encouraging others to do it. We come back to the idea of persistence, we come back to the idea of breaking stereotypes, we come back to wanting to show that whilst we want to normalise this, right now we need to make a bit of noise about it. And recognising people is incredibly important. There are only so many ways you can do that within a day job, within a service, even with a letter or a thank you. So the Women in Defence Awards offers a really great outlet, one that we can also promote that shows that we’re trying to make a difference.

Thank you so much, both for your time and for your support.

To keep up-to-date with AVM James and the incredible work he and his team are doing across the RAF and Defence, make sure you check out @RAFGender on Twitter.

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