Jo Whatley on building an inclusive culture at Inmarsat

The tips others can take to foster a sense of belonging

Jo Whately is a Senior Organisational Development Manager at Inmarsat. She discusses the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) in tech and her journey in the space/satcom industry.

Jo, what led you to your current Senior Organisational Development Manager role at Inmarsat?

Early in my career, I spent several years in retail operations and management, but these roles didn’t suit me, so I chose to switch careers and industries. I consciously decided to find an organisation where the culture was positive, the values were more aligned with mine and had a meaningful purpose.

Since building relationships is so important in career development, I knew that if I landed in the right company, it would be much easier to find the path I wanted. Since joining Inmarsat 18 years ago I’ve had six very different roles within our People Office, including in HR operations and business partnering. However, over the years, I’ve been naturally drawn to work involving culture, learning, development, and ways of working.

How important is DE&I in the tech industry, and how does Inmarsat promote these values?

Inmarsat is at the leading edge of the communications technology that’s needed in the most challenging circumstances; for instance, our satellite connectivity ensures recovery teams can coordinate when terrestrial networks fail during a natural disaster and help shipping crews stay in touch with their families while they’re at sea for months on end.

What we do really matters. To enable us to help people when they need it the most we have to continually evolve and enhance our technology, and to do that we need not just brilliant minds but different types of minds.

As Matthew Syed illustrated beautifully in his book Rebel Ideas, you need people from a wide range of backgrounds to generate new and better ideas. But it’s not just about that for us. At our core, our organisation is about putting people first, whether that’s the people who use our satellite technology, or our employees.

How does Inmarsat approach building and maintaining a positive and inclusive organisational culture?

We’ve invested a lot in proactively shaping and managing our culture at Inmarsat. In 2018 we engaged an external consultancy to develop and roll out our High-Performance Culture programme. More than 90% of our employees have taken part, including new joiners, and we have a network of culture champions whom we connect with regularly on culture reinforcement activities. At the core of our culture and values are respect, staying curious, collaboration and accountability – among others, all of these traits help us focus on organisational and individual actions we can take to create an even more inclusive culture.

At Inmarsat we have different options for flexible working, like hybrid home-office working, and a nine-day fortnight (compressed hours). Flexible working helps people to manage other priorities, and recognising that people have a life outside of work – that they are a whole person – is key to inclusion.

We also try to implement policies that support our employees in aspects of their lives that we may not think play a role, like the domestic abuse policy we launched last year. This provides employees who need it with additional time off, support for hotel accommodation, and an allowance for emergency expenses.

We currently have people in 39 different locations across 22 other countries and people from between 60 to 70 different nationalities working in our organisation at any one time, so there’s a high expectation from our employees for our organisation to both feel and be inclusive. Being so dispersed and so diverse means we have to work hard to ensure we’re inclusive, but initiatives like our culture programme, flexible working, employee wellbeing policies, and our DE&I programmes are entirely global.

What challenges have you faced as a woman in the tech industry, and how have you navigated them?

I am where people might expect me to be as a woman in the space tech industry: in HR. But that doesn’t mean it has always been easy. One of my early managers – a woman – didn’t believe that her gender had affected her career. Gender roles affect everyone’s career, though – whether you identify as a man, a woman, non-binary, or another identity. We make assumptions and judgements about one another – consciously and unconsciously – and they determine how we treat one another. So that was one of my first challenges.

What I learned is to seek out different opinions about absolutely everything. That helps me make up my own mind about what’s right and what’s possible, and we have some truly brilliant women role models at Inmarsat. We have genius women engineers like Edwina Paisley, who leads the satellite launch team. We have women powerhouses in non-tech roles, like Rhianedd Bonsu, who is a Senior Procurement Manager and the Chair of our Ethnic Diversity Empowerment Network, and Bernice Embleton, who is the Senior Director of Financial Planning & Capacity and the Chair of Inmarsat’s Women’s Network.

I sought out my current manager when the role became available in our team – I wanted her to take the role and lead our team as I knew I could learn a lot from her. Surrounding myself with people who think differently from me has helped me learn different ways to overcome difficult bits.

What advice would you give to women interested in pursuing a career in tech, particularly in leadership or management roles?

Firstly, know that any tech organisation needs people in different roles – STEM roles and central support functions. In our space tech organisation, there’s literally space for everyone.

If it’s a career as an engineer or something completely different within tech, getting the right qualifications or experience to get you through the door is one step. Once you’re in, don’t ignore gender expectations or pretend they don’t exist, but don’t let them distract you or derail you either.

It’s possible that if you’re the only woman in the room, people will default to gender roles and expect you to make the tea or take the meeting minutes, no matter what your job is. Sure, make the tea and take the notes, but be aware of default gender roles, notice when it’s happening and call it out when it’s someone else’s turn to make the tea or take the notes.

How can companies better support women’s career growth and development in tech?

It has to start early. Like many organisations, our graduate programme and other early careers initiatives like schools outreach, work experience placements and our apprenticeship programme were put on hold during COVID. We’re well along the path for re-setting our organisation following the pandemic, and we’re aiming to re-establish some of our early careers initiatives. This will enable us to support women and other under-represented groups from the ground up, benefiting our industry and getting women into roles they’re capable of and passionate about.

What skills or traits have been particularly valuable in your career in tech and organisational development?

Doing a job I absolutely love in an organisation whose purpose I genuinely care about is 90% of the career battle. It wasn’t luck that landed me at Inmarsat 18 years ago; it was a conscious decision about the type of organisation I wanted to work for. Putting my values first made finding the right career within space tech much easier.

I’m also very reflective and I trust my gut, so if something doesn’t feel right, I’ll call it out. You have to be able to do that in a helpful, constructive but clear and direct way as an organisational development professional.

One more thing I know has helped me: I’m short but own my space. I mean that if someone steps into my physical space, I stand taller and lean in. What we can tend to do is to step back because we’re not comfortable with someone being in our space but stepping away feels like giving away a bit of power, whereas staying in my space helps me feel more powerful.

What projects or initiatives have you worked on at Inmarsat that have positively impacted DE&I in the workplace?

The most important step we’ve taken in the last couple of years is to launch a DE&I survey. According to one consultancy we spoke to it can take three years to gather enough data from employees to be able to see meaningful themes, but we did it with the first survey.

We already had a culture of trust and openness within the organisation and that helped immeasurably, but our communications campaign around the survey covered all the bases and working closely with our employee networks on the different ways we could engage people was invaluable.

We’ve continued to run an annual gender pay gap report, but having more employee data means we have been able to start looking at producing an ethnicity pay gap report. The data has also enabled us to look at intersections, such as between race, ethnicity and gender, and gender and location. That gives us a much richer picture of our organisation’s development areas and strengths. Because of these surveys we’re also able to be much clearer about our priorities because we’re working on the things that people tell us matter most to them.

We’ve also worked with the specialist consultancy Byrne Dean team to develop and roll out inclusive leadership workshops during 2022. Around 80% of our line managers and leaders – including our entire Executive Team – joined one of the workshops, where they explored unconscious bias, different aspects of diversity, the difference between intent and impact, and how managers can make fairer decisions about career development and hiring.

Having the data and rolling out the workshops are two things that will have had an impact on ensuring that in 2022 we hired and promoted more women, and more people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, in proportion to the current group sizes. That’s great news in the long-term as we’ll improve representation across the organisation.

This year we’ll be focusing on driving career development. I think many managers won’t initially make the connection between career development and improving representation – they make decisions based on merit, so how does career development connect to inclusion?

Our philosophy is that the more managers focus on different ways to connect with the people in their teams – and making sure they connect well with everybody, not just the people they’re more comfortable with – then that’s inclusion in action. Making sure that you’re able to have meaningful and productive career conversations with people who might be more introverted, or less certain about what they want to do, or who may not socialise in the same way, is critical.

Instead of gravitating towards the ‘people like me’ who are ‘the right fit for the job’ when they’re thinking about development opportunities and promotions, managers need to consider a broader range of people.

How can individuals, particularly women, advocate for themselves and their careers in the tech industry?

Having a plan is the first step. Write down where you want to be – this can be doing more things you enjoy in your role or something more long-term like a job change or more responsibility. Then write down where you are now – your skills, experience, knowledge and qualifications. Once you’ve done both of these things, you can see where the gaps are and start thinking of ideas for how you’ll fill those gaps. This will give you something concrete to discuss with your manager and a plan to work towards.

Writing this down is important – if your aspirations stay in your head, they’re just ideas, and ideas won’t move you forward as a plan will.

What do you see as the future of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the tech industry, and what steps can companies and individuals take to continue to make progress in this area?

Progress in the space tech industry can feel slow, but there are lots of specialist organisations like Color in Tech and the Business Disability Forum who are advocating for more diversity, equity and inclusion within businesses.

Color in Tech and BDF have experience of the challenges that they’re aiming to address, and it’s important that we listen and learn from them. That means prioritising and investing in making your organisation more diverse, more equitable and more inclusive, and we need to accept that there are no quick solutions to issues that are deep rooted and have been established over generations.

That means we need to be persistent and tenacious, and as frustrating as that feels, it’s better than doing nothing.

An important step that all businesses can take is to recognise that telling themselves that they “don’t see gender/colour/disability / etc. …” is simply not true. Whether we realise it or not, we do see these things and we can make unconscious judgements and assumptions about someone’s ability to do the job because of them.

DivrsityQ’s upcoming Women in IT Summit UK 2023 in London on 18 May will have all you need to ensure your tech firm can deliver workforce equity as much as commercial viability during challenging times.

Click here to book your place and for more information.

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