As part of our In Conversation With blog series, Women in Defence UK were lucky enough to bag some time with Commodore Ellie Ablett, Head of People Capability in Navy Command. We found out what it’s like planning for the next 30 years, why networks like the Naval Servicewomen’s Network and Women in Defence UK matter, and (almost) everything else in between!
First off, can you tell us what is it that you're currently working on?
Of course. I'm Head of People Capability in Navy Command. So I lead the team who are career managers, to every regular and reserve person in the Naval Service as well as the team that run the operations and plans side of things for short notice people requirements and any exercises and operations on top of the day job. I've also got the other end of the scale - strategic workforce requirements going forwards 30 years – which includes people who manage each of our branches and specialisations and try to map out how many we're going to need, what type of people we'll need, what training they’ll need, all going forwards 30 years! It's great fun!
That's incredible. And congratulations on your promotion as well. I'm just a bit in awe now - that's just such a huge remit! How did you end up in that sort of position?
I’m a logistics officer which in the Royal Navy means you could be doing everything from supply chains, catering services provision, through to HR and executive support. But this job was absolutely the one that I wanted to get to. And as it turns out, as is often the case, it was chance that got me here. They'd picked someone for this role, a really great guy, but he was also qualified for another role that came open shortly afterwards so he was moved sideways and this opportunity came up for me.
Does the huge passion that you have for inclusion and diversity, as is very evident on your social media feeds and your involvement with Women in Defence help drive you in any way?
It absolutely does. The point that I really woke up to on gender diversity issues in the Naval Service was when I started to understand the underlying actual data. I couldn’t avoid thinking about what needed to change. And then, my role in Command of HMS RALEIGH after that showed me even more how central inclusion and diversity is. Not just protected characteristics, but also diversity of thought, of approach. The new generation coming in, with slightly different perspectives, it’s their Navy now, not our Navy. We've got to think about how we take them on the journey, inspire them, and let them take the Navy forward from here.
Also, when I look at our gender diversity challenge in the Navy, I wonder whether the problem is actually work. And by that I mean I think that, while society has already moved on, work is still caught in a paradigm where the traditional view of work is built around one person, usually the man – although of course that’s a binary view and partnerships are much more diverse today – providing for the family and the other person, again usually the woman, staying at home. And because we're still in this paradigm, men feel they have to be the breadwinner and so they just knuckle down and accept some of these work difficulties to climb the promotion ladder. Whereas a lot of the servicewomen I meet are all about the quality of the job, meaningful employment. And I’m not saying that men don't feel that as well, but I just notice that with women they're happier to say this isn't working for me so I'm going to go and do something different.
It’s the fact that, for a woman, it's perfectly okay to say I'm just going to stop this bit of my career, go and focus on my family and then later on say okay, I want to pick up a career again, I'll come back. It's more of a challenge for men to do that. And I think until we get that side of the house more comfortable with having those opportunities, then we don't really progress very far with gender diversity.
That’s why I’m really hoping that some of the first people signing up to the Navy’s new flexible working arrangements – such as working part time or being in a limited deployability category for a fixed amount of time – are men. I hope we can show some of the success stories in an equal way, so there's some men, some women, so it quickly loses its gendered aspects. I hope!
We’re in a time where the threat is constantly evolving, and technology is driving through changes. With this, you must be starting to potentially see some changes to roles and opportunities for inclusion and diversity in the bigger picture? And looking at 30 years ahead, future warfare must come into play?
Yes, absolutely and I think we are slowly evolving, certainly in the shore side of the HQ, by embracing different ways of working. A lot of my team work from home during the week, particularly my career managers, and there is something about actually stepping away from the office and untangling knotty problems.
Looking at the nature of warfighting going forward, we've tended to focus on thinking about the equipment all the time. But now in Navy Command we're starting to take a slightly different view: where do we want to use our people? We’re recognising that there's a whole bunch of activities that are very people intensive that we could do differently, and those technologies are already being developed. I welcome that because, again going back to meaningful work, you get really excited when you join the Navy, you’re inspired, motivated, and then you get to your first unit and you find yourself doing some pretty menial tasks.
I want to find a way to get rid of some of those menial tasks, using technology, so we get these bright people focused on the bits where we really need people to deliver the effect and the capability. So that's quite exciting too.
With the vast amount that you do in your day, it’s a wonder you have any time for anything else. But you’re also Champion for the Naval Servicewomen’s Network – could you tell me a bit about how that came about?
Ah yes, so NSN has been my passion for the last 6 years; I set it up in 2013. In December last year I handed the Chair over to Cdr Rachel Smallwood to take forward. I’m know she's been linking up with Angela and the team, and that she’s been a fan of Women in Defence for a few years, and I want to point out how important that connection is. NSN very much benefitted from its engagement with Women in Defence and I think some of the women who've been a bit tentative in coming forward to join our network got engaged with Women in Defence and that’s then brought them to NSN and redoubled their interest in being involved. So there's really something to be said about the synergies between different networks who are all in the same mindset and how we benefit each other.
It’s really great to hear that. And I know we’ve really benefitted from your involvement too, not least at our Women in Defence Awards evenings, which you’ve previously joined us at. What for you is the part that excites you most about the awards programme and the evening itself?
The opportunity to recognise women, particularly junior women I must say, who are doing extraordinary things in really testing circumstances is something I want to encourage all the time. And I encourage it for everyone, men and women. What the Women in Defence Awards have allowed us to do is get these women's stories and the stories of men who are champions and advocates too, and get them told in front of a very senior and diverse audience.
Every time I read about or hear about what women are doing all over the defence sector it's fantastic, it's inspiring. Women in Defence brings the stories to light and this helps us start to breach what I call the ‘final gap’. I think people intellectually understand the gender diversity and the wider inclusion and diversity arguments. But not everyone, particularly at the senior levels, really feel it in their gut. It's not instinctive.
What happens - the thing I've seen - at the Women in Defence Awards dinner itself is all sorts of people listening to stories and the penny starting to drop. And that is the way to start to bridge that final gap, in getting this not just intellectually understood but inculcated into our leaders and into our style of leadership.
And finally, for Women in Defence to be able to have real impact this year, what would you like to be seeing us doing?
I suppose I haven't thought about it too much, because I saw the impact that you were already having! But I guess there are certain aspects where a lot of the events are in London – so there might be something about using technology, doing a bit of live-streaming, to open out to a wider audience who aren't able to actually physically be there.
And I also think continuing to get those senior leaders to step forwards and engage is important - those within the MoD and the single services in particular. You almost want to try to identify those who perhaps aren't quite as sold on the whole thing – those who've got the intellectual arguments but they haven't got it deep within them. Try and get them on the spot a little. Because there's nothing like having to actually front up and talk about something as a way to get someone to be thinking about it deeply and perhaps having one of the eureka moments putting the dots together.
Thanks Ellie, those are excellent suggestions and we’ll be sure to take those forwards! And thank you so much for your time.