According to government employment statistics, as of the end of 2021, the UK defence sector employed approximately 133,000 staff.
This means that the defence sector makes up around 0.4% of the UK’s entire workforce – a sizeable chunk! The Ministry of Defence is one of the largest employers within the sector.
Despite inroads being made in recent years, women are still underrepresented in the sector.
That said, the UK plans to more than double the proportion of women joining the Armed Forces by 2030.
Sarah Atherton, an MP and former soldier, said: “it is clear that the military is a male dominated institution and so I’m pleased that the government has set itself ambitious targets such as doubling the proportion of female recruits, and has accelerated workstreams on women’s health, uniforms, and equipment.”
Back in July 2021, Jennifer Mathers, Senior Lecturer in International politics at Aberystwyth University, wrote: “Women have served in the armed forces for decades, but still the military is a man’s world.”
Mathers was commenting on a report by the House of Commons Defence Committee which, despite praising the MOD for recent progress, stated: “that there is a long way to go before a level playing field is achieved for Britain’s women soldiers.”
She went on to add: “women and femininity do not ‘fit’ the military in the same way that men and masculinity do, leaving them permanent outsiders.”
It is clear that the sector needs to change, not least to draw upon the skills and abilities from the widest pool of talent.
As we look towards International Women’s Day on 8th March, we want to take the opportunity to profile just some of the women who are successfully paving the way for female success in the defence sector and who are helping foster the necessary change to drive progress.
Founder of Women in Defence UK, a group which promotes equal opportunity across defence and security, helping to inspire, challenge, and develop everyday life within the sector, Angela Owen lays claim to a military career of more than three decades, which included tours of Germany and Northern Ireland during the Troubles.
On Wednesday 9th February 2022 Ms Owen was awarded an OBE in recognition of the work she has carried out in setting up Women in Defence.
On receiving the award, Ms Owen noted how she “would go to seminars and conferences and there would be 100 men in the room and only half a dozen women.” She set up the Women in Defence Awards which are about giving women the confidence to be women and not perhaps feel like they have to be men to succeed in defence.
Ms Owen went on to add: “there’s no reason why a young girl can’t come into defence and have just as fulfilling a career.”
The work she is carrying out on a daily basis is helping to bring women together within the sector, displaying to them that this does not have to be a male dominated environment.
Another OBE on our list, Andrea Hough began her career at Hawker Siddely Dynamics Engineering (now transitioned into ATEC Solutions, one of the defence sector’s biggest suppliers across air, land, and marine) as an apprentice.
Her dedication to her work, progressing from apprentice through IT, commercial, and production management, running three manufacturing plants before becoming chairman of ATEC Solutions makes her the perfect example of a leadership role model for females within defence.
Much like Ms Owen, Andrea Hough was recently awarded an OBE for services to manufacturing. In her role as co-Chair of the Defence Suppliers Forum SME Working Group – which helps businesses throughout the UK reap the benefits of tendering to the defence sector ‒she contributed a foreword to the recent SME Action Plan.
Having previously worked for the Home Office overseeing increased resilience against chemical, radiological, nuclear, and explosive attacks, Anita Friend was appointed Head of the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA).
Here, Ms Friend spearheads an organisation of around 50 staff from backgrounds including defence, security, academia, and the private sector. In this role, she has been focusing on implementing a collaborative approach across defence, security, and industry, highlighting the potential which exists for women to excel within the sector particularly in leading roles.
We fully anticipate that the work of these women alongside the thousands of others working within defence will help fuel the much-needed progress to achieve a truly equal future.
Coincidingly, the work being carried out by major organisations and players within the sector is crucial. BAE Systems, one of the defence sector’s biggest suppliers, is helping to establish a more gender equal defence sector – so much so that the company has laid out its goals in what is called “Our Approach to Gender Balance”. The document states: “our ambition is to be recognised as the leading employer in the defence and security sectors for valuing diversity and inclusion.”
This International Women’s Day, celebrate the achievements of all women across the defence sector, whether it be those fulfilling defence contracts working for suppliers, or those working on the front line – their contribution should be viewed on a par with that of men, and as invaluable.