How can the defense industry promote diversity and gender equality among its ranks? How can it use the lessons learned from the pandemic to improve inclusivity and productivity? Those were just a few of the questions raised by Sophie Thomas, Zephyr program manager at Airbus and industry co-chair of the Women in Defence Charter, who led a thought-provoking FIA Connect 2020 seminar on July 22. The Women in Defence Charter launched in September of 2019 in London and received signed commitments from industry leaders and the Ministry of Defence to work toward gender balance and opportunities for women to succeed at all levels in the defense sector.
Morag Stuart, director of transformation for the Ministry of Defence and co-chair for the Charter, began the discussion by commenting on the professional challenges the pandemic has presented. She shared her own stressful experience of trying to teach school to two small children at home while holding down a full-time job but noted that her team at MOD showed "great resilience [in being able to] change and react" to the new normal of the pandemic.
Her colleague, Dwayne Branch, deputy director of transformation for MOD, noted that forced remote offices and teamwork could help to promote diversity because companies might no longer need to hire based on the geographical location of their candidates. He stressed the ongoing importance of recruitment from all parts of the world to create diversity not only of gender, but of "thought, background, and socioeconomic class."
Andrea Thompson, managing director – Europe and international for BAE Systems Air, noted that the pandemic allowed her company to become "agile and flexible in how to work from home" as they became quickly reliant on new and existing technologies to keep things running smoothly. Thompson also said the pandemic has shown that "we no longer need traditional hours of working. You don't have to be online from nine to five because you may be juggling homeschooling and family commitments, so maybe twelve to eight is better, and we can have that flexibility."
Still, the founder of Women in Defence UK and co-chair for the Charter, Angela Owen, was quick to serve a dose of reality in stating that men and women don't equally share childcare responsibilities, and until they do, women will face an unfair disadvantage in the workplace. Her concern is that even with flexible hours becoming more acceptable, "if remote working is seen as something fantastic for women, but that men aren't so keen on, it could make the divide bigger. Until we get to the stage that childcare responsibilities are shared more equally, [working from home] will not be seen as the norm and not just something women do."
Owen pointed to recent data from the Royal Armed Forces, noting that some one out of 10 women took advantage of its recently offered "alternative working arrangements," but only one out of 100 men. "It's a question of destigmatizing," said Owen, because even though many companies might put in place paternity leave policies, it remains more socially acceptable for women to shoulder child-rearing burdens.
Anna Keeling, managing director of Boeing Defence UK, referred to the pandemic as "an amazing equalizer for us all," noting that regardless of title, everyone has "faced the same challenges during these 100 days of lockdown," including "the ways you communicate, the ways you build relationships and trust, and the ways that you work together as a team." Keeling pointed out that in many ways the defense industry was well poised to handle an unforeseen crisis because it has always placed utmost value on "the importance of the mission and the customers and their needs."
Most on the panel agreed that the pandemic has brought an unforeseen intimacy and trust to teamwork and allowed many who would perhaps not have spoken up in a large conference room to find their voices within the more comfortable rooms of Zoom.
When asked what one lesson she hopes to bring with her into the post-Covid workplace, Thompson might have said it best: "Each and every one of my team is on an equal playing field in terms of who can bring ideas forward. No longer is this a top-down environment. This is an environment where everyone should contribute and has a lot to offer, and I see that now [because of] the last 100 days. I want that culture and mindset to be taken forward and not lost."