Maria Byford, Chief of Staff Personnel RAF, in conversation with Tara Cemlyn-Jones about collaborative learning


 by 25×25 team

Can you tell us about your personal experience?

When I joined the Air Force, which was in the very early nineties, I joined an armed forces and a Royal Air Force that was radically different from the organisation that we see today.

A key example would be that you could join the Royal Air Force, but you couldn’t actually have children. The prospect of staying for a full career meant it was an ‘either or’ decision for women who were joining at that point.

Following legal challenge, that policy was changed in the mid-nineties and benefited my ability to stay and have a family. But I also joined in a specific role as a newly qualified dental surgeon, with a very specific remit, and an expectation that my role would be entirely around the provision of dentistry.

However, attitudes and perceptions have shifted throughout my career, and opportunities have become much more open. An example I would give is that I was selected to command on operations in Afghanistan in 2014 as the only female commander medical through 10 years of combat operations in Afghanistan.

I got the opportunity to be the only woman in that role, which was to command the trauma field hospital capability in Camp Bastion. I was also to mentor the Afghan national army in that location, which is something that historically a woman had never done. And there were cultural barriers with dealing with my colleagues from other services that had to be overcome, for example really interesting conversations around whether or not I wore a head scarf to go and speak to my opposite number in the Afghan National Army. I made the decision not to, because I was speaking to him colleague to colleague and that was something that was accepted. We had a really fruitful seven-month relationship while supporting his army to build their own a field hospital in Helmand province.

I’m now in a role, which was traditionally not a role for a specialist, someone from the medical profession, but because of Sir Mike’s appetite to look for talent wherever he could find it, he opened up the opportunity for this particular role for any branch, and I applied for the job, had an interview and got lucky.

I’m delighted to be with him on part of our transformational journey. which is about that inclusive and integrated next generation Royal Air Force where we expect to have at least 25% women inflow by 2025, if not before.

Can you describe your analysis of pathways to CEO?

One of the things that I found when I first came into this role as Chief of Staff Personnel is that we didn’t appear to be recruiting many women into the flying branch. We have a rigorous selection process, which involves looking at a number of ways in which you can assess somebody seeking to join the RAF and one of those in particular was around cognitive ability and hand-eye coordination, which clearly you would want to be at a certain level to join the flying branch.

Concurrently we were looking at motivation and leadership, but the way in which the filters were set I quite quickly realised that we were filtering out almost entirely all of the women in the selection process. As a result, 98% of the number of people being successful in pilot training were male. So we had a look at the constituents of the assessment process and discovered that we were giving quite low relative scoring leadership and motivation for the role, and

by changing the weighting between cognitive ability and leadership and motivation, which I would argue is also really important for a successful career in the Royal Air Force, we actually tripled the number of women that were able to get through that selection process.

To get women to these positions did you have to analyse the job specs?

In order to ensure that we can make roles in our senior positions as inclusive as possible, we’ve got to attack all elements of the system and that absolutely starts with the job specification, which effectively is the requirement for the job.

If the role is too finely tailored against a specific employment group, then it almost certainly lends towards bias in the way people can be selected for that role say.  Opening up opportunities at a senior level to a variety of branches will enable us to select from a broader pool of people.

Equally, the selection process itself needs to have a degree of balance about it, and over the last, two to three years we’ve ensured that all of our interview panels have a gender balance – so at least one woman on a panel of three.

Who has been critical in bringing about these changes?

There are a number of people I think, who are responsible for the changing culture of the organisation. And I could argue that there are pioneers and trailblazers that we’ve seen over the generations of the Royal Air Force in our 104 years.

Our current Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston is absolutely committed to creating the right culture, and behaviours within the workspace, which I think has led to a really positive culture around how women are treated in the workplace and the inclusive opportunities that are made available to all.

There have also been some really fantastic role models. The first two-star military officer across the armed forces was Air Vice-Marshal Elaine West, and then the first three-star across the armed forces in 2018 was Air Marshal Sue Gray currently still serving and one of the most senior engineers across the armed forces.

But I do think the Royal Air Force has been at the head of looking for those opportunities and finding a way to ensure that their women are promoted into the more senior roles, which is why we are also really excited to be part of 25×25, because it absolutely aligns with where we want the Royal Air Force to be.

We can use hopefully of the best practice that we’re seeing elsewhere in the industry outside of the armed forces to take forward our ambitions.

What attracted you to 25×25?

For the Royal Air Force it is absolutely clear that, while we have made some really fantastic progress and we have made some real cultural change across the Royal Air Force as a whole, we don’t have all of the answers.  And being able to be with a group of other organisations who share a similar level of ambition gives us the opportunity to build on the lessons that have been learned to share in their experiences and collectively, and together we can champion the roles of senior women.

The value that this brings to the boardroom in terms of decision-making and creativity, is so important for the Royal Air Force as it is for the other, organisations that have joined 25×25. I see together, we have a shared journey of getting after our ambition for how we improve the representation of women in our organisations, in 2025 and beyond

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