Global Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, BAE Systems Digital Intelligence
26 Sep 2022
To mark National Inclusion Week, Theresa Palmer reflects on her career and identifies key lessons learned from her time spent working on diversity and inclusion.
Well, I see it’s National Inclusion Week. While part of me, actually *a lot* of me, thinks every week should be inclusion week I’m not going to quibble. With everything else going on in the world, I worry that inclusion might be pushed towards the sidelines and so any chance to highlight its ongoing importance should of course be welcomed.
But of course, I would say that. I’m a Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence. I’m also a mother, a woman and a 20-year veteran of the tech industry – believe me, I know the importance of creating inclusive workplaces for everyone.
And so when I saw that National Inclusion Week was once again upon us, I was pleased, even more so when I saw that this year’s theme is “Time to Act: The Power of Now”. I couldn’t agree more. The clock has long been ticking. So why has it taken so long to achieve real change? Why are we still trying to turn ideas into impact, designs into delivery?
There’s certainly been no shortage of effort. Campaigns, conferences, media blitzes – you name it, we’ve tried it. Yet despite this abundance of activity, the tech industry remains dominated by our male colleagues – just 26% of the tech workforce in the UK are women.
Such statistics can deflate even natural optimists like myself, but now is no time to press pause. It is, however, perhaps the time to make sure that we are focusing on the right areas.
With that in mind, to mark this year’s National Inclusion Week I thought I’d take a step back and highlight the key lessons I’ve learned from working on these issues. What do I know now that I didn’t know when I started my career?
Well, it turns out most of what is required I knew all along. It is the application of those skills that had to evolve for me. I could focus on a topic area, I could outline the importance of data or a host of other topics I’ve discussed before, but ultimately it comes down to four key areas to help lead true inclusive change. Keep in mind, it’s not knowing these, it’s owning them and using them:
I’ve known this one my whole life, but never been very good at it. The reality of changing culture – which is what we are doing with inclusion – takes time. We can’t rely on that and should always push for more, sooner, but not getting frustrated with myself in leading those changes takes patience every day.
This role is not for the faint hearted. It is uphill. Every time I launch one initiative I’ve left someone else behind because there isn’t ONE thing for everyone. Being successful at inclusion initiatives is committing to making sure there is SOME thing for everyone. I can’t do them all at once, though, and there are always critics along the way. Laser focus and a suit of armour is required.
I’d like to say I come up against hurdles but the reality is I hit brick walls. Sadly, in the times we are living in, there are still people that do not want things to change. They are happy, they are comfortable and they are in a position to make things hard for folks like me. I hear “no” a lot. I hear “why” a lot. I even get quite a lot of ‘mehs’ or blank stares. I won’t refer to any of it as uncomfortable silences because I’m not uncomfortable. But I hope others are in that quite room. I keep going despite it all.
A great deal of people come to me when they’ve exhausted all other options. I’d like to change that. I’d like people to see my role as a place to come first if they want to change things. If their workplace doesn’t feel right. Until then, they can be hurt, downtrodden and, frankly, a lot are just mad. I cannot take it personally and it’s important to listen empathetically so that I can feel that lived experience. If I disassociate then I’m not able to help in a truly inclusive way. Empathy, to me sometimes, is taking a breath and listening, instead of jumping right in with a solution.
I’ve played team sports my whole life, but it is notable that in softball I was the pitcher, in field hockey I was the scoring forward. I was drawn to positions that played a critical role in a team. But a ROLE in a TEAM. I often reflect on a game I pitched around age 15. Softball is a game of seven innings, three outs an inning. I threw a no-hitter. 21 strike outs. We lost. I won’t get into the intricacies of how that is possible but the point is what is key. I cannot succeed at this alone. If you don’t have the power of team working with you, each role being as important and valuable as the other, everyone understanding they are key to the groups’ success and contributing, then this won’t work.
I wish I’d known all this at the start of my career. But I also know that inclusion is the future. No workplace can thrive without it. No business can prosper without a diverse set of leaders at its helm.
But let’s just get on with it – I’m done with the status quo.
About the author
Theresa Palmer is Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence
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