Currently there are 3,150 women serving in the Navy out of a total 31,810 personnel. They make up approximately nine per cent of the organisation. However, two issues have been bothering Cdr Ablett over the last few years: the number of women joining up has dropped and the ones already in, are leaving earlier than the men. “Women feel very included in the Royal Navy. But the statistics speak for themselves,” she explains. “Women don’t stay as long in the organisation and at the same time our recruiting numbers have been reducing. Related Articles Bridget Christie is trying her hardest to make feminism funny
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Why are certain Western women so into celebrating it? 08 Mar 2013 Sponsored Divorce lasts longer than you think “For example, in 1987 [before the WRNS was integrated], 21 per cent of the total number of people joining up to the Navy were female. Now, the inflow of women into the organisation is not even at 10 per cent.” Cdr Ellie Ablett, the Head of the Naval Servicewomen’s Network (front and centre), with volunteers (left to right) CPO Heather Johnson, Lt Laura Wellington, Lt Cdr Rachel Smallwood, Lt Cdr Donna Flanagan, Cdr Fi Shepherd and LWtr Sam Coxall She hopes the network, through a series of events making senior women more visible and available, alongside positive male role models, will show the women lower down in rank how they can get to the top, that it’s not an impossible dream once children come into the equation and just how valued women are in the Royal Navy. Cdr Ablett is at pains to stress just how included women are already made to feel in the Royal Navy. It is something I can personally verify being close to a successful woman in the Navy, hearing regularly about her exciting professional life. It is because of this inclusive nature of the Navy, that Cdr Ablett knows some women may balk at the idea of a ‘wimmin’s network’. “Joining the forces is an unusual career choice regardless of gender. It’s a very inclusive environment. We women do feel very included in the Royal Navy. This is why I expect some women will question the rationale of having a women’s network. However, the figures do really support what I am saying and you know you have an issue when only 45 commanders, out of a total of 890, are women. “This network is a positive step for women in the Navy to try and keep more of them in for longer, so they are at least competing with the men for the top jobs.” On duty in the Operations Room on a ship at sea in the Arabian Gulf, women routinely operate on the maritime front line alongside their male counterparts The network couldn’t be launching at a more pertinent moment. A major report out two weeks ago showed that the number of women in senior levels of all areas of public life, is plummeting. And there is much talk of different industries having “taken their eye off the ball” when it comes to ensuring a decent number of women are in the top positions. Interestingly the drop in the number of women coming into the Royal Navy, Cdr Ablett attributes largely to the wider Defence cuts. “When resources are a priority, the Royal Navy has to target its advertising at the pinch points. And at the moment those are the submariners and the royal marines – which have been traditionally male only parts of the organisation. However, the first female submariners are starting later this year.” The catalyst for Cdr Ablett, who began life as a logistics officer, to create a proper women’s group, was an inpromptu meeting she attended last year. “A fellow female commander was leaving the Navy and she drew all of the women commanders into a room to have a discussion about why there were not more women of this rank. It was powerful seeing us all in one room together and a bit of a wake-up call that we could all easily fit into one room too! “It was the real catalyst to actually put a network together to try and tackle some of the issues stopping women from getting to the top.” Unsurprisingly the issues all mainly centre around relationships and the family. How do you balance a relationship with someone when at any moment you could be called away to sea? How do you care for children when you have to relocate at a moment’s notice or get called to an emergency 6am meeting? And ultimately, although babies and relationships shouldn’t be solely a women’s problem – they by and large still are. And the Royal Navy is no different to the rest of the world. If you are serving in the Navy and you are a woman – having children makes life extra complicated. Not impossible. But it’s a major logistical challenge. That’s probably also why Cdr Ablett, with her logistical background, was drawn to this tough issue – which causes hurdles in all types of jobs. “I want to show women, by using positive male and female role models, how they can make different decisions they may not have considered, to still have a personal life and a great career in the Royal Navy. “I also want to demonstrate to naval women how valued they are so they do stay the necessary number years it takes to get to the point where they could compete with the men for those commander jobs.” Commander Ellie Ablett and Lieutenant Commander Rachel Smallwood Lieutenant Commander Rachel Smallwood, who works in the Navy’s personnel department on its diversity desk and helped Cdr Ablett to set up the network, admits the organisation still needed to do more to help support those who had families. “We do have a Navy families network which is being reinvigorated at the moment. It’s useful as people need examples of how others have made having children work, especially when getting deployed to sea.” Fascinatingly the families network, which was set up in 2011, is now being run by a single father of two, who is committed to helping others juggle being a parent. “We pair Navy parents up so they can help each other learn how to manage. And we also have the Naval nannies, who provide emergency care for children if parents are suddenly sent away and have no other provisions,” explains Lt Cdr Smallwood. Ultimately Cdr Ablett believe the Navy is on the right track, as it takes around 18 to 20 years for people to become commanders, so more time is still needed to see more women come through to achieve this rank. However, she also feels more could still be done – which is why she is so enthusiastic about the Naval Servicewomen Network’s future potential. “Ultimately I want to use the network to launch a full-blown mentoring scheme that can help take women from the start of their careers right through to the top,” she passionately explains. “We are only at the beginning of this and have a lot to learn – but we can do so much more to keep women in the Navy and I am excited about what the future holds.” So am I.