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Women in Data: MoD’s first chief data officer on overcoming imposter syndrome

At the recent Women In Data event, Caroline Bellamy outlined why the defence sector needs diversity of thinking when tackling threats

The shortage of women working in the technology sector is all-too-well documented. The numbers still haven’t shifted for the better, even with a growing focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the tech workforce.

The military is another sector that is struggling to evolve from its days as a male-only environment. As of April 2023, women accounted for just 11.5% of the UK’s regular armed forces. They fare slightly better as officers (14%), but this drops to 7% at senior officer level.

At the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the government department in charge of the army, navy and air force, 40% of civilian personnel are female – although even with that relatively high proportion, there have been claims of a hostile and toxic culture by senior women working there, with women outnumbered in meetings, overlooked for promotions, and men-only teams at the top of the ministry.

Caroline Bellamy is a director of the MoD and its first chief data officer (CDO) – even she found coming into a leadership role in defence a challenging situation, joining as part of an under-represented community.

“Female senior leaders in defence are not so common. Also I’m a non-military person. But I came with a whole set of expertise,” Bellamy said, at the recent Women in Data event in London.

“You’re in there as a leader because you have a set of experiences, skills and capabilities. Leadership is not worrying about what I’m not, it’s being confident about what I am, but managing that arrogance pathway, which isn’t about ‘look at the big I am’.”

Bellamy has experienced situations where she’s leading the meeting as the only person in the room who’s not a man in uniform: “I have real proud moments when I walk into a room and I’m the only person not in a uniform, and I’m the only person of my gender, and people listen to me.”

One important lesson from her four years at the MoD is to not be embarrassed or over-appreciative about her position: “‘Thanks so much for having me in the room.’ No, I’ve earned my place in this room. I’m allowed to be here, it’s having pride without having arrogance.”

Being different

Since the MoD appointed Bellamy as its first CDO, a team is now developing around the data function. When she arrived, Bellamy was on her own, but now she has a leadership team, a growing staff, and they’re working with partners across government, industry and internationally.

Although Bellamy is proud of her position as a non-military female leader at the MoD, initially she had strong reservations about joining the organisation due to her differences. After a stint in advertising, she switched to data specialist Dunnhumby, retail marketing at Sainsbury’s, and various data roles at energy firm Centrica.

She then took a career gap and travelled to Africa to work out what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.

“This is something I’d encourage and offer people. I needed to re-find myself a little bit. I’d been on a treadmill, I was successful and young, and I headed off to Africa,” she said.

“We cannot challenge a world that is so different by using the same people with the same thinking. If I don’t have people who think differently from me in the room, we are going to get an echo chamber of my thoughts. That’s unacceptable”

Caroline Bellamy, Ministry of Defence

During her time abroad, Bellamy met a southern African man, whom she married and they now have two sons. On her return, she moved to the telecoms industry, joining Vodafone UK, and then Ordnance Survey as CDO.

“Then I got a phone call from defence. ‘Caroline, you’ve got a really interesting career, come to defence.’ ‘I’ve no military background, I’ve never worked in defence, I have no skills or abilities to join your organisation. Why would I join?’,” she said.

Bellamy turned the job down flat. But the MoD kept up its pursuit, and she ended up joining, discovering that being different was a positive.

“I was welcomed because I was different, because I didn’t have either a pure military or signals background from a military point of view, I was welcomed with my different skills,” she said. And it has turned out to be one of the best decisions of her life.

“We keep the nation safe and we help it prosper. We do some of the coolest data and analytics work you can imagine on the planet. If it’s a cool tool, we’ve got it,” she said.

Different thinking

As her team is expanding, Bellamy is keenly aware of how vital representation and inclusivity is for defence. At the MoD, she’s working to bring in different thinking, including people from different demographics and from different industries, so staff can hear and learn from new ideas.

“In our world, the changing threat surface is incredible. We cannot challenge a world that is so different by using the same people with the same thinking,” she said. “If I don’t have people who think differently from me in the room, we are going to get an echo chamber of my thoughts. That’s unacceptable.”

Bellamy noted that if the data the MoD uses to build algorithms and make decisions is not representative of all the people the organisation is serving or the entire population it’s trying to understand, then it will fail.

“You need to create a leadership situation that allows you to be challenged,” she said. “We need to do that safely and we need diversity of thought. We need all the diversities that we can see, but we need all the diversities as well that we can’t see. We need intellectual diversity, experience diversity, age diversity.”

Building and leading a truly diverse team means being prepared to lead in difficult situations and creating a platform for having difficult conversations: “It’s creating enough safety for people to say, ‘you’re not representing me in what you’re saying’, or ‘I’m not represented in that room’, or ‘how do I get my voice heard?’”

As she outlined the challenges and opportunities for women in non-traditional industries like defence, Bellamy encouraged others to join her.

“For those of you who are feeling any imposter syndrome because you don’t have a pure STEM [science, technology, engineering, maths] career – don’t. I’ve reached a reasonable level of seniority and I don’t have a pure STEM background. You can get there through other routes. I’m an economist by education and I had no clue what I wanted to do.”

Another tip – find a role that lets you carry on learning. While Bellamy has worked in many different sectors, she ended up doing a similar job in quite a few places.

“Going into the defence sector, a completely new industry sector with a huge global footprint, I didn’t understand it. In my mid to late fifties, I could carry on the learning curve. That’s a powerful thing.”

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