This year’s International Women’s Day takes place against the backdrop of the global pandemic. But the fight for a gender-equal world does not pause for Covid-19 – if anything it highlights the urgent need to have the best and brightest in key roles across government and beyond.

Here, we spotlight the voices and perspectives of leaders from the UK public sector and BAE Systems about the importance of tackling gender bias and inequity on the ongoing journey towards a gender-balanced world.

#ChooseToChallenge #IWD2021

Claire Fry, Director of Functional Integration, Defence Digital, Ministry of Defence

I’ve worked for the Ministry of Defence for more than 20 years and it’s been quite a journey. I’m pleased to say I’ve seen a real increase in the number of women working in senior positions during that time, which is really positive.

International Women’s Day for me is really important as I am a firm believer in equality and making the working environment positive for everybody – the phrase “treat people as you would wish to be treated” really resonates with me. This year’s theme, “Choose to Challenge” is close to my heart because I believe we all have a responsibility to ensure we have a diverse and inclusive workplace.

It’s a really exciting time to be working in Defence Digital and I would encourage women at any stage of their career – from having just left education or just fancy a career change – to consider working in Defence. So what would be my top tip? It would be, quite simply, to be yourself: recognise your unique talents, and put them towards whatever you want to achieve.

Christine Maxwell, Director, Cyber Defence and Risk, Ministry of Defence

Thought icon I have been really passionate about the gender challenge my entire life. I look back over my time in private and public sector and definitely see the number of women has changed for the better and definitely more senior women and definitely less bad behaviour. All good – we make progress! So International Women’s Day and other activities like that do work. Is it enough though and are we solving it for the next generation? Unfortunately, we need to keep going but also hand the baton on to keep driving the change.

Defence is still very much dominated by the opposite gender. Interestingly, though, it’s not as bad as I first feared before I joined. I’ve never been in so many meetings where I’m the only woman but, having said that, they are the nicest men I have ever worked with. I’ve worked in banking, oil and gas and now Defence and they are all male dominated industries. Defence is the best so no-one should be worried about joining the mission.

One thing I think we need to think more about is calling out inappropriate comments or behaviour. I had an interesting conversation with a male colleague recently where I was asked if I had experienced poor behaviour and I said “of course”. His immediate question to me was “Did you report it?” and I said “No!”.
I didn’t report it because I could be reporting something regularly. Should I be trying to help my colleagues who make inappropriate comments? Probably. One to ponder this International Women’s Day!!

Major General Tom Copinger-Symes CBE, Director of Military Digitisation, UK Strategic Command

It’s a bit nerve-wracking to claim to be an ‘ally’ – especially when you’re male, pale, stale and double-barrelled. I don’t feel embarrassed by my privileges – but I am conscious of them and I think I would be embarrassed if I wasn’t doing my bit to level the playing field for everyone.

My experience has taught that teams are better and solutions are stronger when you can draw on a range of skills sets and mindsets, and when everyone feels confident to contribute and challenge. So I hope that I can help in creating a culture where everyone is able to give their best – that’s what being an ally means to me.

Julian Cracknell, Managing Director of BAE Systems Applied Intelligence

Diversity is needed icon This International Women’s Day I want to celebrate the incredible contribution of women of all backgrounds in our offices around the world, but also commit to redoubling our efforts to become even more inclusive in the months and years ahead.

Diversity and inclusion are integral to the success of our business. We want to be a company where employees with varying perspectives, skills, life experiences, and backgrounds can work together to achieve excellence and realise individual and organisational potential. But more than that, it’s simply the right thing to do.

As the world seeks to build back better after the horrors of the pandemic, gender equality has become even more of an imperative. That’s because diversity of approaches, points of view and thinking contribute towards improved performance in both the public and private sectors. Diverse teams help encourage innovation and new ways of problem solving, and also offer a variety of skills to meet evolving needs.

I strongly encourage our community, colleagues and friends to #ChoosetoChallenge and commit to helping build a gender-balanced world.

Annette Costello, Principal Cyber Security Consultant

As the mother of two children – a boy and a girl – my husband I have made a concerted effort to ensure both of them are offered the same opportunities. Equality is a fundamental value at home.

But how do we achieve gender equality and gender diversity in the workplace? For me, the answer to at least part of this conundrum comes down to choice. Particularly the choices offered by organisations to both men and women.

Employers have a role in offering and supporting genuine flexibility to both male and female employees. By making this choice, an employer is signalling they place value on, and they respect the choices, their staff make. In return, organisations will build loyalty and attract and retain top talent. There are some things it is difficult to put a price on.

With our first child I wanted to return to work ‘early’. Our son was six months old. Part of my choice was to keep momentum going on my career. By the time we had our daughter five years later, my perspective had changed and my choice was to take a year off. I have had a great career and travelled the world with my work, and this was only made possible because I have a supportive husband who was willing to ditch the stereotypical gender roles.

Sadly, as recently as 2002 and 2007, I know I was one of the lucky ones. Frustratingly and embarrassingly, my husband was frequently praised for taking the ‘lion’s share of the child rearing load when I was overseas, with many well-meaning parents at school curious how he coped when I was away. I think they forgot they were his children too.

After this past crazy pandemic year, I hope organisations maintain their investment in providing hybrid working arrangements. If organisations support both men and women making choices about how and where they work, I think an offer of genuine flexibility to current and future employees will be a game changer in the workplace, and by default, in the home. Particularly if senior men and women adopt flexibility as a working norm (and participate in it themselves), it will become an accepted way of working, regardless if you are male or female.

Yuki Kanai, Deputy Director International Solutions

Dare to challenge icon The theme for International Women's Day 2021 is "Choose to Challenge". I see this as "Dare to Challenge" – both ourselves and our mindset.

I have to be honest. I have never been actively involved in increasing equality for women. However, I have seen talented females choose to leave professional careers for various reasons. This happens not only because women are expected to stay home or are given roles that are lower than their ability, but it’s also down to various social factors, such as a lack of value for money childcare facilities or the difficulties men face in taking childcare leave.

I work among teams with different ages, cultures, background and nationalities. I appreciate and embrace the diversity around me, not just for gender but everything that makes up these people and their unique perspectives. The world is going through an unimaginable global pandemic, and we need every single person to help come up with new ways of helping each other through this challenging time.

The question we need to pose ourselves is can we dare to challenge our current world view and see beyond the differences and find solutions and insights as a collective whole? I think the world needs ALL OF US. It is a small step, one that anyone can start today, even for someone like myself who has not contributed actively to raise the awareness before.

Daisy Radford, Head of Operations and Delivery, Singapore Government 

It’s estimated that only 10-20% of the cyber security workforce are women, which is a great shame for women and a great shame for the industry.

For women, it's a shame because a career in cyber security is guaranteed to be one of purpose, variety and excitement. In addition, the number of disciplines involved in the industry means the range of career paths is vast.

For the industry, you just have to look at how the lack of diversity negatively impacts the bottom line to realise not attracting women is not good for business. On top of losing money, though, cyber security is an industry which protects society's most vital infrastructures – this means that diversity is needed so evolution and innovation happens in the most effective way.

Swarna Subramanian, Software Development Team Leader

Bringing up kids icon Gender equality should start from bringing up kids. I strongly feel the way kids are brought up have effects on their personality at the later stage. Personally, I keep this in mind even while buying toys – why should we limit their imagination and their ability by keeping a fixed list of fairies for girls and cars for boys?

Who said that a girl cannot be a gamer or biker, and boys cannot cry? Girls can have their choices to choose what they want to be and boys can cry when they feel like. Let’s give them equal ground to play by breaking these stereotypes. If everyone started thinking “anyone” can do any job role, without having any preference or presumption that only men or women will be fit in a role, then the gender column in job applications would be used as an identity check, just like how we see the name of the person.

Diversity is an important factor that is keeping the world colourful with different genders, cultures, festivals and so on. Diversity is a great thing to experience – we mustn’t miss it by being narrow minded. Let’s ensure this is deep rooted into coming generations, so we won’t be talking about it only once a year. Equal opportunities need to be made available to everyone and let’s empower future minds to fly high.

Holly Armitage, Lead Data Strategist

I choose to challenge a popular myth that the best mentors for women in technology are only senior women in technology, and ask: does gender matter when it comes to your mentor?

When thinking back over mentors past and present, the best mentoring relationships I’ve experienced are ones where I’ve felt that: 1) my values and those of my mentor are aligned; and 2) my mentoring goals are matched with what my mentor is able to offer to support me.

There may be a comfort – and of course inspiration – for some in having a mentor of the same gender (someone who ‘gets it’ and has smashed that glass ceiling to smithereens), but for me, values are where it matters. A great mentor (and a great mentee!) focuses on the whole person, not just their gender, and a mentoring relationship is about advocacy, integrity and being all-in.

I believe men and women are equally competent in the workplace, and worry the mentor myth doesn’t just create a practical problem (as there are simply not enough women in leadership positions), but runs a risk that women seeking mentors look past the many men who share their values and want to create a fairer and more inclusive workplace for all.

Mivy James, Digital Transformation Director 

Choose to challenge icon For me, “Choose to Challenge” is the key to driving long term change – there’s such a temptation to try to fix everything with a grand gesture and if that did the job we wouldn’t still face the challenges we do. Everyday micro-actions from everybody will collectively nudge the transformation that is needed to properly address sexism. I have two straightforward challenges to share for this year.

Industry is now habitually talking about inclusivity, and conferences and leadership teams rarely take place without it being spotlighted. The line-up of speakers will usually be all male until it gets around to the topic of D&I. It is far more impactful to instead shine the spotlight on female expertise as part of the line-up. I habitually refuse to attend conferences if the keynote speakers advertised are not diverse. And if I am invited to speak solely on being a women in tech, as opposed to my thoughts on a tech topic, I get back with an “even better if” and offer to make introductions to other female experts. If we are sponsoring an event we expect to hold the organisers to account on achieving diversity.

The second challenge is to encourage more male allies to step forward. With so few women in senior roles currently it creates an unfair bottleneck if those women are expected to single-handedly address the gender imbalance and we can’t go fast enough. Let’s normalise #HeForShe.

Charlotte Marshall, Content Strategy Manager 

International Women’s Day is greeted with mixed responses. Many tired of ‘the need for greater gender diversity’ as a big topic that still needs attention, but also well aware it hasn’t been resolved and that it will take dedication from all parties to address.

All women should live each day as if it’s International Women’s Day and take every opportunity to build each other up and demonstrate passion for the cause and our respective fields. Gender bias is a cultural default baked in over centuries, it takes real consciousness to unpick that.

But it must start with each of us as individuals. We must push ourselves to achieve our ambitions, regardless of gender stereotypes, backgrounds and often our own concerns telling us that we aren’t good enough or that we should play it safe. Each of us, male, female or non-binary, have a responsibility to instill this passion and supportive nature into the next generation so they know no boundaries.

Hannah Green, Lead Data Scientist

Diverse companies icon Diversity matters. Gender diversity matters. The research proves it matters because more gender diverse companies are more productive – as long as gender diversity is accepted by all as being important. Creating rules and laws about gender diversity isn’t enough – people have to believe it is important too.

Very few of us will live in an environment where those close to us are all of our gender – how can you not believe everyone you care about should have equal opportunities in life? Diversity means everyone bringing different skills, experiences and feelings to the table to get the compound benefit.

Imagine a world with truly diverse and balanced governments. Extrapolate the research we have about successful companies and apply it on a grander scale. Would the last year look the same? Would some of the approaches we saw have been different? We will never know, but it’s an interesting thought experiment.

What International Women’s Day is saying this year is that if you believe diversity matters, and you want change, then you need to Choose to Challenge – and not just within the workplace.

Orsolya Patterson, Account Manager, Central Government

To me, “diversity” means diversity of thought. If you think about it, our projects nowadays, especially the technology-related ones, are not about tackling simple problems like how to move from A to B. What we need is diversity of thought within the project team so we can figure out solutions for these completely new challenges which haven’t existed before and don’t have a roadmap.

Diversity is still important because we are simply not there yet – not with female and male diversity, let alone ethnic diversity. We have to keep pressing on because if we don’t then we won’t progress as a society. If we can’t progress as a project team, how will organisations or society as a whole make progress?

Organisations benefit from a gender equal workforce because if everyone is equal it means that everyone has an equal voice, and the resulting diversity of thought will be heard by everybody. New ideas will come forward and together we will all be able to create better solutions.

For me, the one action I am taking every single day is to tell my two young sons that women and men are equal. They can do whatever they want, they are both equally capable of achieving their ambitions. From playing football to studying science, it doesn’t matter if you are a boy or a girl, they should follow their dreams and do whatever it is they want and are happy to do.

Isabel Van Dooren, Solutions Engineering Manager

Strong icon Since I was about seven, I saw myself as a headstrong “feminist”. I’ve always felt very strong about the fact that women should deserve the same opportunities in life as men. I’ve come to realise, though, that my expectations and norms have still evolved a lot over the years.

For example, when I now read books from my childhood to my children or watch television series or films from the 1980s or 1990s, I realise that I’m actually more offended with a lot of the male-focused content than I was back then. At the same time, I feel more normal in my strong “feminist” beliefs than I felt 20-30 years ago, as I notice that for the younger generations, these beliefs have more often become the norm than the exception.

As such, I feel we've come a long way since I was seven. This makes me hopeful for the future. Because there is still much more to do – more people, more cultures are yet to be convinced about women’s equality – change is real if we want to make it so. Therefore I invite you to “Choose to Challenge” as this is the only way to improve our footprint and change the world.

Lorna Rea, Central Government Account Manager

I’ve heard many definitions of “diversity” over the years. It’s useful to take it outside of the context of your organisation – take diversity in the natural world, for example, where there is a rich tapestry of different species.

Where we are today with diversity in an organisation is that we’ve opened a new museum and we have one big exhibit but nothing else – none of the richness that’s really out there. This is the battle we really have to contend with – making sure that the workforce truly reflects the richness of the wider population at every level. Let’s face it, we’re not anywhere near there yet. We’ve really only just started this journey – it’s going to be long and difficult and we have got to really commit to it.

But why would an organisation benefit from having a more gender diverse workforce? To me it’s pretty obvious. If you look at the antonym for “diversity” you see words like sameness and agreement – that groupthink element of the same people sitting in the room making the same decisions and thinking in the same way, which is exactly what we should be moving away from. The more diverse the thinking, the more diverse the outputs in terms of decisions. That for me is why it is so critical.

One action I’d commit to continue to do, as I think it is really important is to own the problem myself – no excuses, no passing by. When I see a situation that doesn’t look right to me I will take action right there and try to make a difference. So I am going to own the change and continue to do that moving forwards.

Jo Massey, Account Director, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office  

Journey icon Diversity means closer to reality. Achieving it in the workplace means bringing others on the journey with me: other women, young people, quiet voices, under-represented ethnic groups, people with cognitive differences, people with something to say that isn’t being heard. Diversity is like magic when you make it the norm and that’s what I go to work for. But there is much to do.

I remember in the early 1990s when the internet was starting to be something people used in everyday life, having a debate with my fellow students about what it might offer to us in the future. At that time I was adamant it would be a tremendous educational tool that would unite people and enable us to share a massive diversity of views and experiences.

I guess I was partly right, but in reality I feel that the internet has almost done the opposite in terms of its impact on our social habits: it has encouraged us to identify and network with people like ourselves, rather than with people who are vastly different from us. Because life is not ‘normalising’ everyone’s experiences, life is diversifying all the time. To get more comfortable in today’s world – to be successful as an organisation – we need to continue building that rounded view or we will find that we only appeal to a very small minority of the population.

After all, a gender equal workforce reflects the real world. When people feel accepted and valued as a critical part of the workforce, they enjoy their work, they produce excellent results and they make our clients happy.

If I could take one action to forge equality in the workplace, I would not only make it normal and comfortable for every team to have an equal balance of male and female, but would also make it distinctly uncomfortable for any team to operate without a gender balance. If it was genuinely seen as risky to exclude one gender from a business decision, organisations would be making very different choices.

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