Standing together

While flexible workplaces are often thought of as providing for more women to stay in more senior roles, for BAE Systems Australia, flexibility is part of a wider shift in attitudes to work. Manufacturers’ Monthly finds out.

Instituting workplace policies that allow for flexibility is one thing, putting that into practice is the next step. In some instances, it may come down to an individual being the first to pioneer a new way of working in a particular role to show others that what’s on paper can be done.

Natalie Waldie began her career with BAE Systems Australia as a modelling engineer, as part of the company’s graduate recruitment program.

“I studied mechatronics,” recalled Waldie. “I did mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science, and I came into BAE Systems to do modelling and simulation on the Nulka hovering rocket decoy.

“I was able to come in and help with sensor selection, modelling of the performance of the system, and recommending how the customer should proceed with that upgrade.”

One of Australia’s most successful defence exports, Nulka is an Australian-designed hovering rocket decoy, utilised by the Royal Australian and US navies. Moving into the role of payload liaison engineer, Waldie followed the Nulka project around the world.

“I worked on Nulka for a couple of years, including a secondment to the US to work with Lockheed- Martin on the Nulka payload; the electronic warfare system of the product.”

During her time working on this project, Waldie was able to make the most of the flexible working practices that BAE Systems had begun to implement.

“When I was working on Nulka and I was first pregnant, my general manager came over to me and said, ‘Congratulations, you probably don’t know now exactly how you want to come back to work but whatever it is, we will support you in your transition back to work in a way that works for you’.”

Such support enabled Waldie to come back into a technical position once she finished her maternity leave, however in a slightly altered capacity.

“I started off two days a week and once I’d gotten my daughter settled in childcare, I moved to three days a week,” said Waldie.

“I did that for another two and a half years until my second round of maternity leave.”

Returning to work this time, Waldie knew that she wanted to continue to grow as an engineer at the company, and take on greater responsibilities. Combining this with her personal responsibilities was possible, based on the policies that BAE Systems had set out, yet remained unprecedented at the time.

“When I came back from the second round of maternity leave, I thought, ‘Let’s see how this all works.’ I previously had worked on Nulka, I’d gone into engineering management, I’d moved to work on a couple of other projects, and when I came back from maternity leave,
I said to my general manager, ‘I would like to make a move to project management’.”

“We hadn’t had any part-time project managers at that point in time.”

Being the first in any situation can be difficult, however Waldie found that BAE Systems Australia was receptive to this change.

“The business was pretty frank. They said, ‘We haven’t done this before. Will you work with us and give us the feedback on what works for you?’”

While Waldie encountered some scepticism as to whether the role of project manager could be filled by a part-time employee, she has grown in the position and moved into new roles up to her current position of program manager, technology development. Working in these positions part-time has even allowed Waldie and BAE Systems to better understand the work required for these roles.

“There are a lot more roles that can be done part time than you think, you just need the team in place around that role to provide support. I’ve now been five years part time and I’ve moved from project management into general management,” said Waldie.

Having gone through this experience, Waldie sees having a part-time manager as one way to grow the capabilities of the entire team sitting underneath that manager.

“It’s really empowering for your teams to have a manager work part time because there are a number of days a week where I’ll say to the team, ‘Your judgement call. If you can’t answer that question you pick up the phone and call me on my day off. But if you can, how about you do’. It’s amazing how they can, and for them they come away thinking, ‘If my manager was in the office sitting next to me I would’ve turned around and asked but I’ve gone and solved it myself’. That’s a great feeling for your team.”

This approach has enabled Waldie to dedicate her working hours to the core capacities required of the role that she has been in. These learnings have then been passed back to BAE Systems.

“Delegate things to whoever’s going to be your successor or second in command. That gives them both great experience and it also allows you to focus on the bigger picture stuff, which is often what those leadership roles are all about,” said Waldie. “It’s amazing how much of those five days is filled with things that can be done by other people.”

While Waldie’s experience is just one example of what a flexible workplace could look like, for her it’s important to note that the change that she experienced is part of a wider shift of attitudes towards work culture that are enabled by flexible workplaces.

“One of the biggest changes at BAE Systems has been a lot of our male staff who have young families working four days a week so that they can have days at home with their kids. That has really been a massive leveller in the organisation.”

In her teams, Waldie has also seen that when practices at work change it can make it easier for alternatives to open up. Waldie has encouraged her teams to adopt an “agile” approach at work, where there are no assigned desks, but rather team members work from laptops at a place of their choosing in the office, or at home. This has in turn broken down the difference between full- time and part time.

“Changing to an agile workplace means people get really used to the fact that you can work from home and be effective,” said Waldie.

Although Waldie has utilised BAE Systems Australia’s policies as they stand, she acknowledges that for BAE Systems, as much as any other company, there is work still to be done.

“The organisation has been very good at taking initiatives, and we know we’ve still got a distance to go to make the playing field equal, to deal with unconscious bias, to continue look at structural issues that make it difficult for women to progress their careers,” said Waldie.

Confronting these issues has been the Lean-In Circles that Waldie has facilitated. These meetings have allowed women in the organisation to come together both to connect and to create change.

“What I think the Lean-In Circle has been fabulous about is working with us as women to tackle why we sometimes sabotage our own careers by our own actions and insecurities and what steps we can take to empower ourselves, to take the opportunities that the organisation is actually offering us,” said Waldie.

In addition, the Lean-In Circles have collected examples of conscious and unconscious bias in the workplace, and then relayed that back to shift attitudes and cultures in the workforce.

Waldie highlights, however, that these issues do not just sit within the organisation itself but are one example of wider attitudes in the sector.

“The challenge is that the closer you get to manufacturing is the more blokey it can get. There’s not a lot of women there so particularly for us, to have networks like the Lean-In circles, that shared experience, and that feeling of camaraderie is very supportive. It’s really good when you find that other people have dealt with the same challenges and it’s a challenge we need to face together.”

At the same time, women thinking about entering manufacturing could see it as an opportunity, noted Waldie.

“Companies in this industry work extra hard to attract and retain our women in engineering and manufacturing, but the other part I’ve seen is how incredibly valued the diversity that women bring to a team is.”

For BAE Systems and other manufacturers to thrive, Waldie sees embracing diversity, whether in flexibility, agility, or visibility, as a must.

“The diversity that women bring is really important to have in manufacturing. By not having women in that space, organisations like BAE Systems could miss out on a potential competitive edge.”