Today, Friday 8th March 2019 is International Women’s Day: a worldwide event that celebrates women’s achievements – from the political to the social – while calling for gender equality.
As I reflect on the past 30 years of my own working life, I’d like to recognise that there have been significant changes in the working pattern of females including a sustained rise in the share of working-age women in paid employment or self-employment.
The UK economy looks dramatically different today from how it did in the 1970s when the proportion of working woman between the ages of 25-54 was at 57% in 1975, rising to 80% in 2018. The increase was most rapid when I first joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) at the end of the 1980s, with the employment rate rising by 10 percentage points between 1983 and 1990 alone. It has continued rising almost continuously since then and is already well above its pre-recession peak.
Nowadays, the opportunities for women in the workforce are incredible. There are challenges, but there never has been a greater opportunity in history for women empowerment.
I’d like to take you back through time, on my own digital journey and as I reflect on personal milestones. I’d like to highlight a few of my own high flying heroines; women that as role models have raised their heads above the parapet. After all, it’s these women, who have and will continue to help us to overcome our fears, allowing us to believe it is possible to have it all.
Just before I start, I’d like to mention my mother, Ruth, my biggest inspiration, my most encouraging champion, and my greatest sounding board. Thank you for always being by my side.
1989 – Women in the Navy (WRNS)
I joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service in January 1989, one week after passing my driving test in Mönchengladbach, Germany. Up until this point I hadn’t lived in the UK for any extended period of time, as I had spent many years of my childhood living overseas with my parents travelling the world as a Service family.
The Women’s Royal Naval Service (popularly known as the Wrens) was the women’s branch of the UK’s Royal Navy. First formed in 1917 for the First World War, it was disbanded in 1919, then revived in 1939 at the beginning of the Second World War, remaining active until integrated into the Royal Navy in 1993. Wrens included cooks, clerks, wireless telegraphists, radar plotters, weapons analysts, range assessors, electricians and air mechanics.
At the time I joined the Wrens, I clearly recall the exploits of the first British woman in Space; Helen Sharman, and marveled at her achievements.
Helen Patricia Sharman is a British chemist who became the first British astronaut and the first woman to visit the Mir space station in 1991. It was fantastic to think that someone of her capability was given such opportunity.
1990 – Women in the Royal Marines Band Service
I’m now managing a registry at the Royal Marines School of Music in Deal. A year before I arrived, the IRA had exploded a bomb, killing 10 marines, one civilian and injuring many more when the blast lifted the roof off the recreation centre at the barracks. It was a very sad time. On a positive note, it was also a milestone in history as for the first time; women would be able to join the Royal Marines Band Service. I remember being asked to model the new uniform for photographs that would be approved at MOD Whitehall and ultimately by Her Majesty, The Queen.
At the time I worked in a registry, similar to the one in the photo, I was in charge of a Naval typing pool. I remember the clunky typewriter, the paper filing system and having to store the hard drive in classified and secure cabinets (no data acts in those days). It was my first experience of saving, recovering and owning IT infrastructure. I believe this was around the first time I became interested in technology. It was incredible to think that the simple typewriter, not only changed the world as far as technology goes, but it forever changed the dynamic of gender roles associated with women in the workforce.
2001 – Women in the Airforce (WAAFs)
I’m now working as an IT contractor for Commerzbank in Frankfurt. We’ve just celebrated the Millennium. The Spice Girls and ‘Girl Power’ are in the charts. Women are starting to have a voice! I had always wanted to learn to fly and started to investigate how to take my pilots licence. I also read about the exploits of the brave pilots in the Battle of Britain and remembered the work carried out by those wonderful and adaptable female Ferry Pilots.
During the Battle of Britain although the fighter pilots were male, many of the ferry pilots who transported the aircraft from the manufacturers to the airfields were very talented female pilots, because they had to be able to fly over 30 types of aircraft; big and small.
The courage and example shown by many WAAFs, including my own Grandmother, during the Battle of Britain had a huge impact on how the service developed. Six military medals were awarded to WAAFs for exceptional service. Three of them are shown below:
The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) worked alongside the Royal Air Force and worked in the various Commands as drivers, clerks, telephonists, cooks and orderlies. One in eight of the pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary were women. This organisation delivered aircraft around the UK to where they were needed. Lord Balfour, Under Secretary of State of Air commented that:
“The Air Transport Auxiliary were civilians in uniforms who played a soldiers part in the Battle of Britain”.
Underpinning the practical contributions made by women to the Battle of Britain was the intangible comfort and moral support which helped keep the RAF flying. Personal battles of anxiety, fear and loss were also fought by many.
2004+ IT Services – ABN AMRO, EDS, Hewlett Packard and DXC
In 2004 I was working on the Trading Floor of a major City Bank, namely; ABN AMRO. I was an Application Support team lead and was working in a predominantly male environment. It was the year that I gave birth to my first child, a baby boy, Alexander. ABN AMRO had the most amazing maternity package and welcomed me back to the office three days a week, whilst being paid for five days!
In 2007, ABN AMRO had outsourced its IT to EDS and I was starting to enter the world of Project Management. I passed my Prince 2 exams and gave birth to my second child, a baby girl called Charlotte.
Although 2010 was a year of personal challenges, it focused me on to new adventures and exciting aspirations, such as forming my own Project Management consultancy and travelling the world, having read so much about the magnificent Amelia Earhart and being inspired by her flying exploits.
Amelia 1897 – 1939 – Amelia Earhart was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and received the U.S. Distinguished Flying Cross for this accomplishment.
“Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail their failure must be but a challenge to others.”
Realising one of my many dreams, I embarked on a solo adventure to Kathmandu, Nepal where I hiked among the mountains of the Annapurna range and took a flight with ‘Yeti’ airlines to view ‘Sagarmatha’ – Mount Everest.
In 2017, I was working as a PM consultant for the Home Office consulting at DXC, a global IT Services Provider. I had visited Singapore twice and had taken my son skiing for the first time to Italy, Cervinia and the beautiful Matterhorn Mountain. It was also the year that the WRNS celebrated the centenary year of their inception.
“Women for the Navy – new shore service to be formed.” – by 1919 there were 7,000 Wrens including cooks and stewards, despatch riders, sail makers and those who worked in intelligence.
Their motto was ‘Never at Sea’.
2019 – Bibby Financial Services (BFS) – Head in the Cloud
My daughter is now 12 and my son 14. At Easter we will ski together for the first time as a family in Cervinia, Italy. I am now leading BFS’s Cloud Migration programme, which has involved the migration of workloads over to their Cloud Azure subscription (IAAS). This has been a high-priority strategic aspiration for BFS during the past couple of years, and I’m proud to have been part of it’s digital journey. Looking ahead, this will allow BFS to capitalise on its investment in the Cloud Azure platform to innovate, develop and grow its business.
Two weeks ago, the RAF announced that an engineer has become the first ever UK female military three-star commander. Sue Gray, a Royal Air Force engineer, has been promoted to the rank of Air Marshal, making her the most senior female military officer in the British Armed Forces. No glass ceiling!
Sue commented that:
“As the RAF’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math’s champion, I have a lot of contact with the younger generation – who never fail to impress me and fill me with confidence for the future”.
Over the last two decades, the military have had a very successful track record of integrating women into the majority of its roles, most recently in submarines. The introduction of women into the Royal Marines General Service now means that all branches of the Naval Service are open to all candidates, based on ability, not gender.
2020 – The Future
I imagine my 12 year old daughter Charlotte growing up on her iPhone (other brands are available!), wearing conference swag that I’ve bought her back from a recent Blockchain hackathon or OSCON convention, collecting Octocat figurines, and absorbing technology in almost every aspect of her daily life.
Fast forward 10 years and Charlotte has transformed into a young engineer, working like her parents did before her to make the world a better place as she mergers her own contributions to a project team. As I imagine Charlotte, I like to think she’s inspired by the impact her work will have on her peers and on future generations. I like to think she acknowledges the endless complexity her predecessors spare her by capturing it in standards and software, and I hope she’s driven to advance the field even further.
The economic empowerment of women across the rich world is one of the most remarkable revolutions of the past 50 years. It is amazing because of the extent of the change: millions of people who were once dependent on men have taken control of their own economic fates.
It is remarkable also because it has produced so little friction: a change that affects the most intimate aspects of people’s identities has been widely welcomed by men as well as women. Dramatic social change seldom takes such a benign form.
I leave you with one last thought, as we sit here now. Look up to the highest flying woman that we currently have today. Anne McClain, a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army, is currently a female NASA astronaut serving on the International Space Station. This is Anne with her four year old son.