Defence industry event focused on diversity

Claire attended AIDN-ACT Women in Defence Industry: Leading with Cognitive Diversity event, at the end of November in Canberra.

It was a packed out event (clearly I’m not alone in having missed networking). And it was informative; through the panel discussion it was great to hear from such experienced Defence → Defence industry business women, including some sitting squarely in STEM fields. You can see them all in the featured image above, in the following order from left to right:

  • Facilitator: Katherine Ziesing, Strategy and Communications Lead, SME Gateway facilitating. 
  • Kylah Limmer, Head of Defence & Intelligence, ANZ, Fujitsu 
  • Simone Wilkie, Director, The Beaufort Group (and Ret’d Maj General)
  • Alexia John, Founder and Managing Director, Bluebird Advisory
  • Karen Schilling, General Manager, Corporate, Sigma Bravo, a KBR Company.

The importance of diversity, in all its forms

They spoke about what it means to be a leader in Defence Industry and how diversity — broadly speaking — is critical for our innovation ecosystem. As well as getting my brain cells fired up and feeling inspired, it was also a pleasure to meet so many women running their own businesses. 

As a side note: Alexia John, Managing Director of Bluebird, is making incredible progress in her data and technology transformation business. It’s a booming field. In four months, she’s already recruited 12 people for her team! 

My key takeaways

A lot was covered but here are the key points I took away (and found particularly pertinent):

  • That there is growing awareness of how important diversity is. “Cognitive diversity, risk, psychological safety are all important parts of innovation,” said Alexia John. 
  • Agile organisations need to support ‘failing fast’ and this is most effective when staff feel psychologically safe to make mistakes and learn. Without this safety there won’t be open mindedness to try something new and fail/learn; therefore we can’t make effective progress in innovation.
  • That businesses and organisations need to make leadership, culture and values-based decision making front and centre in how the business operates. Alexia recommended: 1) all staff complete a Hogan’s assessment and 2) organisational psychologists coordinate reflection and self-awareness exercises.
  • Karen Schilling added: “Hire for culture and values; train for skills. And if the leader hasn’t been living the culture and values, they need to change or move”.
  • There’s a long way to go (still) to achieve cognitive (and other forms of) diversity in the Defence industry. Stereotypes and biases — like if you don’t know all the acronyms and Defence lingo you don’t know what you’re talking about — are holding the industry back. 
  • Karen Schilling said: “We need to have women at every level.” And everyone agreed. Some panellists didn’t really like targets or quotas. But they did acknowledge that at the end of the day, ‘special measures’ are a valuable mechanism to move closer to equity and a more ‘level playing field’. Prioritising diversity should be included in an organisation’s Key Performance Indicators and regular reporting.
Royal Marine controlling a Black Hornet 2 Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS). It's a pocket-sized and hand-launched UAV, which is used in the field by military personnel for reconnaissance. It weighs 18 grams, uses micro thermal cameras, visible spectrum cameras and proprietary software for flight control, stabilisation, and communications. Source:

How can we support the next generation of women?

Towards the end of the panel discussion I asked the panellists how they are supporting the next generation of women to get into STEM and Defence industry. They are enthusiastically promoting women in leadership roles and seeking to employ more women, which is fantastic. There was general agreement that businesses supporting their staff to talk to kids and teens in schools would be a good first step.

Alexia John emphasised that we cannot fail in getting greater diversity into coding and Artificial Intelligence applications. The risks to society are too great. In particular, this is because much of the tech is hidden from broad oversight by Intellectual Property and other provisions. This emphasises the importance of having diversity ‘baked in’. Otherwise biases and stereotypes can proliferate in new technologies.

Diversity and innovation

This topic really goes deep for me and strikes to the heart of why diversity is so important in innovation, like everywhere else.

 “What kind of society are we going to architect?” Alexia then asked, as she wrapped up. What kind of society do we want to create, indeed.