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Diversity in the defence industry – the vital role that technology plays

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) continues to work towards a more inclusive and diverse workforce, with technology skills playing an increasingly important role for building relationships and carving out career pathways. The MoD is recognising the strength that comes with recruiting and building a workforce of individuals with diverse skills, backgrounds, and perspectives. A diverse workforce brings a multitude of benefits – not only to the MoD, but also the wider Civil Service and to society as a whole.

The private sector has long recognised the benefits of a diverse workforce and has come to realise how essential this is for continued commercial success. Public Sector industries followed suit swiftly, albeit limited in part by legacy technology decisions which did not provide attractive career options to new entrants into the industry. Defence has perhaps been one of the slowest to recognise the tight coupling between digital transformation and workforce diversity, but this is changing. It’s vital to ensure our defence industry is filled with bright people with a variety of backgrounds, equipped with the right technology. Before diving into this, however, it’s important to have a foundational understanding of the British defence industry today. 

The MoD’s linear association as a developer of weaponry and protector of the United Kingdom by force is an oversimplified summary. The MoD’s global work includes anti-piracy, anti-smuggling, humanitarian and disaster relief. It’s expanded role and heavy dependence upon the latest technology makes it absolutely necessary to have a broad and skilled workforce to support it. Key role models are emerging from within the MoD itself, such as Clare Cameron, Director Defence Innovation. In her role, she is responsible for enabling innovation across the MoD while also changing cultural behaviours in the process.

Elsewhere, back in September, the UK’s defence industry launched a new declaration, the Women in Defence Charter, with the aim of accelerating the desperately-needed progression of gender diversity across the sector. The chairs and chief executives who support the new Charter are committing to improve the industry’s gender balance by pledging to support the career development of more women into Senior Management roles.

Plugging the gaps

Thanks to the complex variety of partnerships within Defence – spanning both the Public and Private sectors, with spokespeople hailing from vendors and academic institutions alike – the benefits of gender diversity are particularly relevant for the industry. As technology continues to evolve at an ultra-fast rate and the widespread move towards digitisation across society, there needs to be more opportunities to harness the fresh thinking that accompanies a better gender balance.

To achieve this, however, there’s much more work to be done in the British defence industry to plug gaps in both technological innovation and diversity – and the latter would go a long way to help solve the former. Technology innovation is especially vital for the MoD due to the need for collaboration with other sectors where technology is pivotal. Security is a prime example here, as there are many crossovers in the way that technology can be deployed – the potential of which needs to be harnessed more across all government departments.

In order to improve, we need to look at the way we manage and train our personnel and retain the right skill sets whilst also being open to what we don’t know we even need yet. It is, of course, impossible to recruit an expert with years of experience in an emerging technology! Focusing specifically on gender diversity, it’s important to establish some clear and actionable lessons on how defence teams can recruit more women to its workforce, which will help modernise the UK’s defence industry from a technology perspective. It’s specifically here, where aptitude and potential win out over experience. These desired characteristics open the door to embracing the recruitment of a more diverse workforce. Technological innovation can’t happen if half the prospective workforce is cut out or deterred.

First of all, there needs to be much more information about the careers that are available for women – for example, many technical and digital roles don’t require someone to have worked in MoD from the beginning and lend themselves well to flexible working. Other options include financial and commercial roles, which need to be more widely promoted.

A lesson to be learned

Working closely with schools also shouldn’t be overlooked, as it’s here that there’s a real chance to make a difference early on, before any emerging misconceptions sink in (potentially irreparably) further. Government support for promising female STEM-inspired students is also key. The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) recently announced that the number of girls applying for its CyberFirst summer courses shot up by 47 per cent in 2019. This is an especially notable figure, considering that – compared to 2018 – there was only a 29 per cent increase in the overall number of applications for the courses.

This is largely because, in January last year, the NCSC announced the launch of its CyberFirst Girls Competition to help encourage more young women into computer science, with a view to a career in cybersecurity. This follows on from October last year, when the MoD alongside the NCSC launched its Cadets CyberFirst programme to communicate cybersecurity skills and expertise to over 2,000 cadets each year, empowering them to tackle emerging cyberthreats in future.

Another tactic is to proactively raises issues such as not getting enough CVs from women – then examine honestly why that might be. To start, you might want to ask yourself if the language of the job advert could be considered off-putting – “ambitious” isn’t synonymous with “challenging”, yet the two are often conflated.

Beyond this, it’s also pertinent to consider how to better engage those already employed. One step towards this is to encourage both men and women in senior leadership positions to set an example by working in a way that is flexible enough for others to do the same. In doing so, this makes MoD more accessible for those with families or those who might have other commitments. Supplement this by building a strong internal network of male and female advocates in senior positions who have the power to influence and implement. The MoD now states directly on its recruitment pages that it is seeking “enabling flexible ways of working as the norm”.

There’s no doubt that technology is moving at an exponential speed; what’s more, malicious actors are capitalising on these opportunities of vulnerability at an alarming rate – and, all too often, in a manner that’s completely impossible to anticipate. The lesson? The MoD needs to act faster to predict cyber-warfare and other nefarious technology tactics, anticipating their potential sources and uses. Workforce diversity is key to that. It is crucial that the UK defence industry moves rapidly to diversify its staff and embrace emerging technology to work more efficiently, enabling it to get on with what matters most – saving lives.

Kat Stubbings, , Head of Service Delivery, UKCloud

Kat Stubbings is Head of Service Delivery at UKCloud – a multi-cloud provider specialising in the public sector. She’s spoken on TechUK’s panel for Women in Defence Technology.