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In Conversation with Major General Sharon Nesmith

Major General Sharon Nesmith was the first woman to command an operational brigade and recently the Army’s first female Personnel Director, so not only is she an incredible inspiration, she’s also a very busy woman too. We were lucky enough to bag some time with her to get her take on how far the Army has come with regards to inclusion and diversity, and how we can keep driving progress forwards across defence.

Major General Sharon Nesmith, you've had an incredibly successful career in the Army, commanding at every level, and leading the way as a woman moving up through the ranks of a male-dominated organisation. Thinking back to when you joined up in the early 90s, what motivated you to join?

My motivation would have been very similar to my male contemporaries then and today - I was attracted to the spirit of adventure, the strong team ethos, the leadership. And a career in the Army offered a variety of roles and locations too.

My brother was thinking of joining the Army at the time, so that sowed the seed initially. My parents were also an extremely positive influence on my thinking about what I was going to do to. They came at it from an angle ‘you can do anything you like, and absolutely none of it is about gender’.

You've said before that the Army you joined in 1992 was almost unrecognisable to the one you're in now. Could you expand a little on that? What are the key differences and the main changes you've experienced during your time in service?

I would say many of the attractions remain the same. Everything I said that attracted me to the Army in the first place have absolutely lived up to my expectations and more. You don’t know this before you join, but the sense of purpose, the strong moral compass and how we see that reflected in our values and standards is absolutely part of why I guess I’m still serving today, 20-whatever years later!

The part that I’m particularly proud of, from an Army perspective, is that we are now demonstrably more inclusive, and that significantly more opportunities are available to everyone, but especially for women. Those things, and the policies that underpin them, mean that our behaviours and culture are just in a different place than they were 27 years ago.

In many ways I think young women now would just not recognise the Army I joined at all and, they’d probably find it quite abhorrent in some respects.

To give an example, when I joined my first troop that I was commanding, in the 28thSignal Regiment who preparing to go onto operations, I was told that I wouldn’t be able to deploy because at that time there were no women on the front line. I said that was wrong and I did deploy. But that was the mindset I walked into my first year of regimental duty with.

And there are other examples too. For the terms of service that I signed before I went to Sandhurst; a lot of the interview, inductions and familiarisation was focused on what I was going to do when I got married. I actually signed a piece of paper that said if I was choosing to have a family that would be the end of my career. The dynamics around that have changed profoundly and quickly from when I joined.

My last example would be that the Army didn’t feel as inclusive as it is today. If I look back at my Commissioning Parade at Sandhurst, which is a momentous point in a young officer’s career, the women’s platoons were stood at the back of the parade and we didn’t do rifle drills. Instead, we had a cane. Of course, nothing about that feels inclusive and you wouldn’t dream of seeing that today. And the fact that’s so different now is probably what I’m most proud of.

It’s a brilliant contrast. And sometimes we beat ourselves up about it, and absolutely there’s plenty that we still need to do. But when we’re an organisation grown from the bottom up, it takes that long to change some of these ingrained cultural behaviours. For all those reasons, I think the approach we have to our young women as they join as soldiers or officers is demonstrably more inclusive, with significantly more opportunity.

We’ve only recently been able to say this but, today you can join the Army and do any role, Ground Close Combat or not, that you want to.

There must have been times when you've come up against obstacles in your career? What's given you the resilience and determination to get past these and get to where you are now?

Without a doubt the team and people around me, be that the people I’ve worked for, the people I’ve worked alongside or those I’ve commanded. It’s knowing someone has your back, someone’s looking out for you and there’s somebody you can reach out to.

We didn’t have some of the mechanisms we have in place now; we had less of the role and fewer real-life models, and we didn’t have the networking and mentorship programmes we have today. But it was the team I particularly tapped into because it embodied good leadership, good team spirit, and all the values and standards the Army espouses.

I learnt to feel comfortable in my own skin and perhaps to keep it all in perspective, pick the things I can do something about, balance life more and enjoy it.

Can I pick up on the phrase you used there, “comfortable in your own skin”, is that you feeling able to be authentic?

I think I always felt, in heart, I was authentic. Looking back there were periods in my career, and I can cite and see them, where I tried to fit in more; I tried to be more like everybody around me.

I now recognise the strength I was bringing was not looking like all those people around me. But it takes a level of personal and professional maturity to feel comfortable with that. And I was very fortunate that the people I worked with helped me see that.

If there’s something I could say to my younger self now, it would definitely be to be confident and comfortable in your own skin, keep it all in perspective and enjoy the moment.

You were the first woman to command an operational brigade. Could you tell me more about that experience?

Yeah! So, it’s fabulous!

We had a very operationally focused role, which meant we were at readiness for either UK or NATO operations to provide command support. It was a real honour to plan and lead the soldiers and officers under my command. It was a very technically able, very contemporary, technology-driven operational environment; it ticked all those really strong boxes.

And it was an international environment too. I worked in international HQ quite a lot of the time and that brought a brilliant diversity to the way it operated.

I count myself very fortunate to be a part of all of that.

And now another first, as the Army's first female Personnel Director, with a seat on the executive board. What does your current role involve? And what are your top priorities for your time in post?

As Director of Personnel I’m responsible for thinking about our people in terms of enabling the Army to attract the right people, retaining the right quality, making sure we have the appropriate talent identification and management in place. That might not sound the most exciting, but it is really exciting!

What that means for me in terms of priorities, I would split into two:

I’d like to say we’re more focused on the future and on being comfortable with change, the continual adaptation piece: the transformation; how we think about our people; making sure we can attract a future diverse workforce with balanced skill sets and critical thinking. Within that, we need to be more agile in the way we think about our career management, how we identify talent, and what progression really means.

But I can’t take my eye off the ball here and now, and at the moment that is very much about making sure the totality of the offers or terms of service are through offering life skills. How we invest in our people today is what will make the difference to be able to attract and retain people.

It’s making sure we offer attractive skills from the point of entry, an apprenticeship for example. Then through life learning, by the time soldiers and officers leave they have a whole array of skills in place for them to go on and gain employment.

Another crucial aspect is how we invest in our health and wellbeing, making sure we’re looking after our people not just in physical terms but also their mental health and wellbeing.

We've talked about how far the Army has come and some of the strong, positive messages from your personal journey. But there's undoubtedly still a long way to go. What do you see as the areas that still need work? How can the Army continue to drive change forward, be that with regards to improving gender balance or inclusion and diversity more broadly?

Absolutely – there will always be things we can do.

First and foremost, we must keep asking ourselves the question of ‘what more is there that we can do?’. We need to make sure we understand the current environment and culture to work out what more we need to do, which from a gender perspective covers three broad areas I think.

Where is it that policies have been introduced or maintained barriers to women who want to serve? We have some really great examples of where we’ve introduced more flexible service and where we’re introducing role-based physical employment testing. All that enables us to offer broad opportunities, but there will continue to be the need to review our policies. For example, delinking some of our career progression from key moments in our life cycle because actually you might not want to have to attend a residential career-advancing course just at the time when you’re thinking of starting a family.

Next, I think we’re doing really well in our representation, but this will always be a challenge when we’re a bottom-up grown organisation. We will have lateral entry, of that I have no doubt, but I don’t know if that’ll generate significantly large numbers. We need to make sure we capitalise on where we have good representation, with real-life models. And we’ve got some really good examples, like the Sergeant Major at Sandhurst, one of our core Sergeant Majors, and also the incoming Deputy Commander Field Army (DCFA) who’s going to be female senior in a couple of months. So, we are demonstrably showing, not even consciously, to young women soldiers and officers that are joining today or serving today, that there is a progression path through the Army for them.

Finally, one that we’ve done a lot on in recent years is building our networks. We have a very strong and positive Army Servicewomen’s Network - their last conference was incredibly uplifting. If I was to rewind back 10 years ago, we had a network where I would say it was a more negative environment. We were focussing on where things were difficult or wrong, or we felt wronged by the system, but we needed a network that had positive leadership that would genially inspire our women to progress. So, we can keep building on what we’re doing with our networks, with our passionate Gender Champion, and with all our advocates and allies.

If you bring it all together: changing some of our policies, removing barriers, having a support network and demonstrating that you can go and do whatever you choose to, then you add the resilience and it will just grow and grow in momentum. I think those are the areas we can focus more on. And, of course, Women in Defence UK has a role in all of that.

We're delighted to have the Army on board again with this year's Women in Defence UK Awards, as partners for the Emerging Talent Award category. Why do you think the Awards are important, and Emerging Talent in particular, for improving gender balance and gender inclusion across defence?

The Awards are brilliant for raising awareness, shining a light and celebrating successes; it’s all about representation of real-life models that people can aspire to, look up to and learn lessons from.

Women in Defence UK demonstrably help us to do that, it is powerful and has an infectious energy around it, and it has a really strong contributing part to play.

I think in the past where we have got it wrong, in terms of promoting what the Armed Forces offer, is that we haven’t celebrated some of the successes. I put myself in this category of previously being reluctant to talk openly about it, because servicewomen have not wanted to emphasise their gender in association with being good at their job. So I’m a late comer to realising the value of the celebrating success but for Women in Defence UK to have a network that can bring this together to do some of that is brilliant. It inspires people to progress and do their very best.

I love the Emerging Talent Award in particular because it’s about people who are at the start of their career just realising exactly what they can do. If we can tap into this enthusiasm and, make people feel positive and comfortable about the way they have achieved success, then they can be proud of their achievements and go on to fulfil their career ambitions. I can’t think of a better award really.

Staying on Women in Defence UK for a moment if we can, because 2019 has been a year of firsts for us as well, with launching our values-led vision and holding our first speed mentoring and RADA Impact sessions. We ask this question of everyone that we're fortunate enough to speak to - what would you like to see Women in Defence UK doing more of this year and beyond?

To me, it’s more of what you’re doing!

I mean, there are two aspects I think we’re always looking for the opportunity to do more of from an Army perspective, both of which build on what Women in Defence UK is already doing.

One is learning and mentoring across government. Perhaps, understandably, we can do a lot of looking down and in but if we can do the up and out, and be in mentoring relationships with, learning from people in the defence industry and across government, that’s brilliant.

I think the second one, which is strongly linked to my first point, is that we have benefited so much from our internal Army Servicewomen’s Network. So why would we not want to do more of that? For example, having events that look at a particular problem: how do we improve board-level representation; how do we recruit more women into STEM – those type of things.

And finally, something a little different, you're a Vice President of the Army Football Association. What role, if any, does football, and sport in general, have to play in promoting inclusion and diversity in defence?

Yes! I love what sport does for us, and it could be any sport, because at its heart sport is a subset of all of those things that I think are attractive to people joining the Army. The spirit of it, the adventure, the variety in your working life, the strong team ethos and your leadership. All the personal development you get out of sport is really at the heart of what makes us tick.

For women we’ve sponsored England Netball and we have other associations with like-minded groups such as the Girls Scouts. And I think for women particularly there are two angles that make sport even more important.

One is that sporting teams are another network, connecting us in a different way. So, in terms of building resilience, building that ‘I’ve got your back’, building who can you reach out to when you need to, we can do a huge amount of that through our sporting activity.

The second is that we have some really high-quality sporting teams and I can think of no better way of doing engagement outside of the Army. That’s both so that people understand us better and also to tap into some real talent. Likeminded people in spirit, adventure and a variety of teams play good sport, and we’re able to showcase what it is that you can do in the Army. And I should say that it isn’t just about high-quality sport, but sport for all. Everybody can get something out of sport almost regardless of what level you’re playing.

For all those reasons, I’m really passionate about where sport fits in and I believe sport demonstrably supports and helps our inclusion and diversity.

Many thanks to General Sharon Nesmith for taking the time to answer our questions. To keep up-to-date with the incredible work the General and her team are doing across the Army and Defence, make sure you check out @BritishArmy on Twitter.

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