Top Women in industry and the military compare notes…

Written by Vince Sweeney, Director at Informed Solutions

At a time of global, economic and social uncertainty, there is a growing realisation that partnerships between the military and industry offer huge opportunities to both. In this article, two inspirational modern leaders from the military and the IT industry share their thoughts on the common challenges faced by their respective sectors; made all the more challenging to them, as both are women at the top of professions traditionally headed by men.

We met with Elizabeth Vega, global CEO of award winning Digital Transformation practice, Informed Solutions, and Lt Col. Phaedra McLean TD, Commanding Officer of 6 Military Intelligence Battalion, both Manchester based, and asked them where the synergies lie between their respective professions.

As Phaedra explained, “Modern military operations, much like modern commercial operations, take place in fluid and ever changing environments. Success amidst all this complexity requires access to accurate and timely intelligence that supports effective decision making.”

“And, of course,” added Elizabeth “helping clients make sense of complex and disparate data is exactly what we do at Informed Solutions, particularly in our work in the logistics, oil, gas and nuclear sectors. However, it’s not just about innovative technologies; the touch stone is having the right people in your teams at the user, business and solution provider sides of the partnership.”

“Absolutely” agreed Phaedra. “That’s why both in the military and in successful businesses, recruiting great people, training and developing them and treating them really well is so very important.”

Currently, only 10% of British soldiers (13% officers) are female, while the Army Reserve figures sit at 13% overall and 18% for officers, against an Army Reserve and Government target of 15%.

“It is true that the military have perhaps been slower to embrace the cultural shift necessary to attract more females to the Army” offered Phaedra. “However, there is a genuine energy from the very top down to tackle the gender imbalance. Whilst the overall figures may not make great reading, good progress is being made. Within my own area of Military Intelligence, there are absolutely no barriers to females wishing to join us and in 6 MI Battalion we have, from small beginnings, achieved the 15% already, but we want more. The great news is that 43% of our potential recruits (those within the recruiting pipeline but not yet attested) are female.”

The IT sector fares little better, with average female representation in tech teams still hovering around 16%. Elizabeth, a high profile champion of women
in IT, has spoken in the past about her own journey when, as a young IT professional, she found herself in a male-dominated workplace with a laddish culture complete with inappropriate girly photos on the wall in the lunch rooms.

“Actually, there wasn’t that much overt discrimination” she told us. “It was more casual and institutionalised; the unwitting type that excludes those that are ‘not like us’ and centres around laid-back male camaraderie and corporate complacency. It was pervasive. It builds the concrete walls that oppress, constrain ambition and sap a woman of the energy to succeed.”

It was the realisation that, regardless of her abilities, she would never gain a seat on the main board that led Elizabeth to establish her own company, Informed Solutions, now a multi award winning market leader of which she is Global CEO.

Phaedra’s route to her present role as one of the highest ranking officers in the Army’s Intelligence Corps Reserve has been challenging in other ways, juggling her highly successful career in the Army Reserve, including numerous operational deployments, most recently in Afghanistan, with her full time role as a member of Cheshire Constabulary’s Specialist Firearms Response Team. Paradoxically, she was able to deploy on front line armed operations in the police service yet not in the military.

“Whilst both the Police and the Army are disciplined uniformed services, they are culturally quite different.” she explains. “Both services have historically been slow to recognise that women could perform on equal terms with their male colleagues. However, the police embraced equality and diversity rather more quickly, although the Army have made great strides to catch up in the last few years. In recent operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, women have served on the frontline in a wide variety of roles: medics, bomb disposal operators, engineers, pilots and at sea. Taking the next step in opening up ground close combat roles to all genders is only right. ”

So, given their shared experiences of overcoming gender stereotyping in their respective careers, we asked them how they saw the future relationship between industry and the military developing, and the role that women will have in both.

“Both the Intelligence Corps and the world of Digital Transformation require individuals with similar skills and qualities” commented Phaedra. “Of course,
none of these skills are gender specific. There is a huge potential cross-over between the IT industry and the military, with intelligence work being increasingly digital in nature. This is of particular interest to the Army Reserve, as the training we give is second to none and many of the skills we teach are directly relevant and transferrable to industry. We are very keen to build ever closer relationships with industry and would particularly like to see more young men and women from the IT sector among our ranks.”

“There is a well-documented digital skills gap” added Elizabeth, “and clearly core digital skills are a benefit to both types of employers. Similarly, of equal importance to both are personal qualities; sharp thinkers, inquisitive minds, excellent communications skills and above all, ethical and moral courage. The military is strong in all of these areas and has a rich pool of talent that the IT industry has so far been slow to tap into. At Informed, we recognise this and are signatories to the Armed Forces Covenant. As for tackling the gender issue, I’m really proud that over 36% of Informed’s IT and Digital staff are women, as were 57% of our recruits into these areas in 2016.”

So there are certainly challenges ahead for both the military and the IT sector and for women seeking to make careers in both. However, the green shoots of progress are increasingly evident, particularly when inspirational leaders like Phaedra and Elizabeth give cause for optimism that the future may be much brighter.

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