Women In Business – An Interview With NWBLT Member, Jackie Arnold

Gender diversity is fundamental across all sectors and industries in the economy. However, there are clearly some areas where female inclusion is much harder to achieve than others. Undoubtably, one of those sectors in manufacturing and engineering. That is why it so great to hear from a Jackie Arnold, Head of Strategy at BAE Systems Submarines.

  1. This year is a significant year for the advancement of women’s rights and gender equality with the centenary of the Representation of the People’s Act. Women have had the right to vote for 100 years now, why is it important to mark this occasion?

When you say how important is it to mark this event, as far as I’m concerned it’s critical – I don’t think we should lose sight of the journey for women today. If you look at the last 100 years as a microcosm of history the progress we’ve made in that time is absolutely huge, and this particular event was in many ways just a first step but it triggered a whole series of further events, some intentional and some accidental, that have completely transformed the role of women in society. So if you think about some of the subsequent events since then you’ve got equal rights amendments, the development of women’s studies generally and the average age of marriage for women has increased quite significantly. As fundamental as anything in all of this is improved birth control that has developed during that period of time. As a consequence of all of this the educational opportunities that have presented themselves has been quite astounding.

  1. Going beyond just reflecting as a business leader what tangible things do you think business leaders and policy makers and other influential people need to do to continue the further advancement towards equality – what needs to be done to go further?

Gender equality really does hinge on choice, and as leaders we should be doing our utmost to ensure men and women have equal choice in their decision-making – particularly in the workplace. As businesses we have the ability to stimulate the culture shift that is necessary – we’ve come a long way along that journey but I do think there is still more work to do. I’m thinking about mothers particularly, about women and then generally the fact that the progression to motherhood can inhibit career progression. We have to make sure that mothers are able to increase their labour market participation by making the changes we can in the workplace to facilitate that opportunity. So I think, to be honest, the whole environment is ever changing and is increasingly demanding. Some of the outrage and furore that’s been predominant over the last few months on the gender issue, highlights absolutely the fact that it’s a bit naïve of business to think that the gender economic gap is improving. One of the issues that business is continually criticised for is lack of innovation, which is perceived as a real issue for us in the UK and that stimulating innovation is essential for driving economic growth.I think I’d make the point that you’re more likely to get innovation if you have got cognitive diversity in your management team. Tackling gender issues is one way of ensuring that you get this, and that this could be an important stimulus. I’d allude to the skills challenges that we’re facing, particularly in the STEM industries. Gender diversity, is in many ways the key to tackling many of those challenges. Lots of businesses do have diversity strategies in place in order to fill these gaps, but it is challenging. Perhaps we need to continue to place a greater focus on encouraging more women into the industry, to highlight the wide range of roles there are available to make it less seemingly male. We need to work on how we present those opportunities to increase the attraction for a broader and more diverse audience, and make the work feel more engaging and exciting – recognising the changing face of the sector we are working in. I think there is a lot we can do in the workspace to help with that, make workspaces much more vibrant, more contemporary to have a wider appeal than perhaps the more traditional look of some of the workspaces within these industries. Obviously as business outreach activity, continuing to promote STEM within schools definitely helps us to benefit from establishing good relationships with the education establishments. Ultimately that is how we are going to secure that diverse talent pipeline and maintain the success of our early career entry route. There’s been some criticism recently of apprentice schemes. It’s not enough to just make more available, it’s critical that when we make them available and we make them successful, so that we continue to attract the sort of talent we’re currently seeing entering into the marketplace. In my experience, as a business we’re certainly tapping into talent that previously would have gone off for a university education. That talent will be demanding and if we don’t deliver we will revert back.

  1. How do we change the atmosphere of some of the male oriented industries?

As a business we spend significant time in schools and other education establishments, the main thrust of which is to change perceptions. We have a relatively small number of senior women, particularly in those STEM related areas in the business and therefore, there aren’t really that many role models. Availability of role models is fairly critical to enabling further attraction and equally importantly ensuring the progression of females in this male dominated work. So I still think there’s quite a long way to go and a culture shift may be needed to change that internal environment.

  1. What more do you think needs to be done to dispel the cultural barriers that prevent women from choosing certain careers? How do we go about changing cultures that still to this day exclude women and minority groups from certain sectors?

Whilst I’m very reluctant to recommend positive discrimination, I do on reflection think that some forcing of discipline to consider gender and ethnicity through talent management and succession planning is essential. I’ve never worked in an environment where positive discrimination has been recommended. I have however worked in an environment where in every discussion around high potential individuals within a business and the tracing of their careers there’s always been a reflection each stage on,“so how are the women doing?” “How are we doing from an ethnicity perspective?” It’s not changed necessarily any decisions but it has meant that people are forced into that discipline. If any of those individuals were lost along the way actions would be put in place to understand what had happened and what could be done to address the issue. I think forcing that discipline does mean you are actively tackling issues as they arise. Having male leaders who are visible and actively sponsoring is helpful, perhaps essential.

  1. You’re a native Cumbrian and vice chair of the Cumbrian LEP. Do you think tackling gender equality is different in rural areas from urban and city areas? Or are the problems the same just on a different magnitude?

Are there any differences? I think at the end of the day, no. The issues are the same. In a more rural area, like Cumbria – particularly with larger businesses, they tend to lead the community. In a city environment it seems the community is placing demands on business. I would like to say; despite this we do have a wealth of immensely talented young women coming through both in the public sector and particularly the SME sector within Cumbria. I think it’s about time. I’m trying to encourage more of these women to take up some of the community leader roles, previously and traditionally seen as male roles. For a significant amount of my time on Cumbria LEP, I’ve been the only woman sat there and I’m still the only woman representing business. I would love to encourage more of these emerging female leaders to jump in and help out in these forums.

  1. So last month we heard that horrible story around the President’s Club. What were your thoughts when you first heard about that in the news?

That’s one of the examples I was alluding to earlier. We think we’ve made massive strides but you see something like that and you think, “crikey, have we really made much difference at all?” But then I do think its important to get thebalance right, – clearly the whole profession is riddled with inappropriate behaviour, but nonetheless some of those women have managed to succeed without getting embroiled in that and I think its important that we focus on that positive message.