Every International Women’s Day I suddenly become very popular. Everyone wants to speak to me as a woman leader in the tech industry. Don’t get me wrong – I love doing it – but it can feel like quite a weighty burden at times.
Thank goodness, then, for men like Captain Steve Prest, Deputy Director, Navy Acquisition (Equipment and Systems) for the Royal Navy. Not only is he a high-flying naval officer, he has quite the coolest Twitter handle I’ve come across, and, more importantly, he has been named as a finalist in this year’s EveryWoman in Technology Awards in the Male Agent of Change category.
His is a message underpinned by his profound belief that improving gender diversity is not some people’s responsibility but everyone’s, particularly male leaders who are willing to step in and visibly challenge things when they’re not right. It’s a refreshing attitude, but one of the things I’ve noticed is that UK defence has very visible male allies and champions – more so than the tech industry at any rate.
A wake up call
So, why has Prest in particular been so vocal and proactive? Was there a specific moment of epiphany which persuaded him to take up the cause?
“For me, I’d never really considered that there was a problem – I thought that the Navy was a meritocracy and as we all get paid the same per rank, gender doesn’t come into it,” he admits, somewhat ruefully. And it took a conversation with two women who worked for him to set him straight.
“After I’d told them what I thought they kind of looked at each other and there was a heavy silence before one of them said ‘you have no idea do you, sir?’
There then followed an hour-long conversation where they set out their lived experiences of being a woman in the Navy – from unthinking actions to overt biases and discrimination, through to uniforms not fitting properly and having to wear their hair in an uncomfortable bun. “Their experiences were completely different to mine,” concedes Prest. “It was quite clear they faced a number of barriers and challenges which I simply didn’t face, and it left me with a lot to think about.”
A question of fairness
The conversation set in motion Prest’s determination to speak up and speak out about the issue of gender diversity. He is keen to stress, though, that his decision to take up the cause is not rooted in self-promotion but more about his innate sense of fair play.
He is also keen to stress though that he doesn’t claim any virtue or moral high-ground: “my formative years were in the era of “lad culture” and “men behaving badly” – I have no claim to being blameless in the cultural and structural challenges that women face, and I am sure that I have unwittingly been part of the problem but am determined to be and do better”.
“There is a basic issue of fairness at play here,” he points out. “You can only pick the best person if there is a level playing field. And it also struck me that if you’ve got a team of people and your leadership is only effective with a proportion of them, then you’re not as good a leader as you can be and your team is not as effective as it should be.”
Prest’s position as an Ally of the Naval Service Women’s Network, as well as a Ministry of Defence Gender Advocate, has given him ample opportunity to spotlight key issues. Or rather, as he puts it, “it’s given me some official coverage to go and start agitating as it can be more powerful when coming from the inside, so to speak, then from those pushing for change from the outside”.
“There is a basic issue of fairness at play here. You can only pick the best person if there is a level playing field” Captain Steve Prest, Deputy Director, Navy Acquisition (Equipment and Systems), Royal Navy
He is now juggling a combination of priorities, starting with problems within his immediate vicinity. “Partly it’s about behaviours in your local place of work,” he explains.
“So, it’s challenging when things aren’t right, being a mentor and advocate, and ensuring that women’s voices are heard and amplified if needed – all those sorts of things. Then there is the public advocacy – where you go and talk to people and raise your profile via communications. And then it’s about how you change the system; which policies need to change to help level the playing field.”
Finding the right language
Prest’s passion comes through loud and clear but at the same time he also places a premium on language and finding the right way to communicate the message. Passion will only get you so far – it’s about finding the right words to maximise the impact.
“One of the reasons I wrote my blog is that one of the dangers with this ‘woke’ stuff, which is a silly term but widely used, is that if you just chastise people and talk to them about privilege then you can very quickly get their backs up,” he argues.
“Effectively, what you’re telling them is they don’t deserve to be where they are. A better way is to win the argument from first principles – asking them things like ‘when picking people for promotion do you believe we should have a fair system?’ And then take it from there, because if you remove the incline facing women then you’ll probably find that more women will stay in the race for longer and start winning as well.”
He goes on to say that different issues need and deserve different language and responses. “There are some issues which affect all or most women, such as menstruation or the provision of women’s bathrooms; then there are others which predominately affect women and are issues across the population, such as childcare,” he says.
“And then there are issues which affect a woman but not necessarily falling into the other two categories, such as specific professional or personal matters. Each of these need different ways of dealing with them – from mentoring and coaching, through equipment and infrastructure provision, to policy change.”
Call to arms
So what is Prest’s main message this International Women’s Day? What does he say to his peers who have not yet signed up to be Allies? There’s a pause and then a firm answer, one that pivots back to that overriding issue of fairness.
“If you identify there’s a problem for a minority group in your organisation, then don’t you think we have a duty to do things differently? It is on you as a leader to do something about it.”
“I spoke to a woman who’s a naval aviator. She had done all kinds of operational flying, including serving in Afghanistan and having been shot at – she told me that talking to men about her experiences as a woman in the Navy was the scariest thing she had ever had to do” Captain Steve Prest, Deputy Director, Navy Aquisition (Equipment and Systems), Royal Navy
He concludes by pointing out that the most powerful thing in getting people to accept that there is a problem is when women themselves tell their stories. “This is incredibly powerful,” he says. “I spoke to a woman who’s a naval aviator. She had done all kinds of operational flying, including serving in Afghanistan and having been shot at – she told me that talking to men about her experiences as a woman in the Navy was the scariest thing she had ever had to do. The least that we can do, as men, is listen respectfully and take action as a result.”
Let’s hope that when next year’s International Women’s Day arrives, even more men will be standing shoulder to shoulder with Captain Prest – the prize of a more gender equal world awaits.
About the author
Mivy James is Digital Transformation Director at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
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