Royal Navy sails head on into a major diversity challenge

Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett By Madeline Bennett July 23, 2021 Audio mode
Targeting women and people of colour for senior roles isn’t favoritism; it’s correcting an injustice.


The Royal Navy faces quite the battle when it comes to tackling diversity within its own organization, being a relatively homogenous organization made up of predominantly white men.

According to the latest UK Armed Forces’ diversity report, ten percent of the Royal Navy/Royal Marines are women. Only five percent of the Royal Navy/Royal Marine are BAME, while this group accounts for only three per cent of Officers across the UK Regular Forces, incorporating the Navy, Army and RAF. However, there is awareness that things need to change and the Navy is now taking steps to shift these numbers and become a more diverse, inclusive employer.

Commodore Steve Prest, Deputy Director Acquisition (Equipment and Systems) at the Royal Navy and Advocate for Gender in Defence, says the first hurdle to overcome is acknowledging and understanding that people experience the world differently. This is a trap those in the majority group in the Navy – white men - can sometimes fall into. Talking to some female colleagues a few years ago, it struck Prest that they experienced the Navy quite differently to him in a number of aspects:

Firstly, there's a basic point of fairness. If you subscribe to the view that your organization is a meritocracy, that can only be true if you've got a level playing field and if everybody can compete on an equitable basis. The second point is as a leader, if you don't understand how the people in your team and your organization experience things differently from you, then you can't lead them properly. And if you're not leading them properly, and you're not embracing that diversity, and you're not creating an environment where everybody can maximize their potential, then as a leader, your team is not performing as well as it could be.

Not how it works

Prest was keen to dispel the myth that there is such a thing as an ‘inclusive leader’, which he views as no different from being a good leader.

You can't be a good leader and then go, Oh yeah, I need to do some diversity and inclusion stuff as well, pencil me in for a week next Tuesday. That's not how this works.

One of the areas the Royal Navy is taking specific measures to tackle is increasing the number of women in leadership positions. While 12% of the Royal Navy’s officers are female, this doesn’t necessarily mean they are at the highest levels within the organization. According to the latest diversity statistics, within the officer rank across the whole of the UK Regular Forces, female representation at a junior level is nine percentage points higher than senior officers.

Some of the problem here lies with the fact the Navy is “a bottom-fed system”, according to Prest. Unlike other businesses, which can parachute in a new CEO, MD or vice-president, no-one joins at the level of Admiral or Commodore in the Navy. Instead, everyone comes in via new entry training and has to work their way up through the pipeline:

We can't buy in diversity at levels, we have to grow it and we've been really bad at it actually. I'm a Commodore, there has never been a woman in the Navy who's been a more senior rank than the rank I hold today. We've never had a woman Admiral - excluding Princess Anne, but she didn't really come through the system in the way that everyone else does.

Having had women at sea and full participants in the Royal Navy for the last 30 years, Prest acknowledged that the organization is clearly not doing something right regarding women at leadership level. The Navy has carried out psychometric and aptitude testing, and found that the women at senior levels have a higher average score than men at the same level. This highlights the gradient women have got to deal with when men are running on the flat:

Privilege is a slightly toxic term, but if I'm running my race on the flat and my female colleagues are having to run up a five or 10 percent gradient, then we have to think as an organization about how you correct for that, because you've got to do so in order to make it fair. Having run this for 30 years, it's quite apparent it's not going to happen unless we take some sort of positive action.

We need more women. We need more people of color in our senior leadership. What we have to do is take positive action to address some of the structural barriers that they face; one of which is not having people in senior positions who look like them, so we're going to have to put some people in senior positions.

This is even more critical when you consider the numbers of women joining the Navy. Women still only account for 11 percent of new recruits to the Royal Navy/Royal Marines, meaning the pool of candidates for senior roles isn’t going to grow organically. However, Prest doesn’t think quotas are necessarily the right answer, so the Navy isn’t going to go out looking for people who just tick the boxes of all the diverse criteria to deal with this issue:

What we're going to do is find some really good people and make sure that they go in at the right level, and we grow and mentor them and coach them through the system such that they can achieve, so they get there on their own merit but have been supported through the system in the way frankly that men already are. It's more for me about leveling the playing field in those sorts of ways.

One of the well-trodden arguments against this type of positive action is that if you're favoring people of certain characteristics, how do you know they’re the best person for the job. But as Prest pointed out, the system already favors people of a certain characteristic:

They tend to be white men, and how do we know they're the best people for the job? I don't know, because some of the women that joined around the same time with me will already have left or would have had to run into headwinds or up hills that I frankly haven't had to run up. And they may well have been better than me, but they just didn't stay the course because why would you?

We have to reframe the conversation about some of this positive action that actually it's not favoritism, what you're actually doing is correcting an injustice.

My take

When questioned about virtue signalling, Prest noted that it’s a slightly toxic phrase. However, his view is it’s better to have people around the table talking about these issues, even if sometimes the actions don't match the words – rather than it not even being discussed.

In an organization with a current ratio of 90:10 men:women, the Navy is definitely at a more difficult starting position when it comes to D&I than many other businesses; added to the fact that it can’t recruit external talent to fill senior roles with underrepresented groups.

Hopefully it won’t be too long before one, or more, of the women identified for coaching and mentoring gets promoted to Commodore or Admiral. Women need to see others like them in senior roles if organizations want to recruit and retain them – and Princess Anne is unlikely to prove a particular inspiration to young women choosing a career path today.