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Spotlight Series: Theresa Palmer, Global Head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, BAE Systems Digital Intelligence

Theresa Palmer, Global Head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, BAE Systems Digital Intelligence

ARTICLE SUMMARY

Theresa Palmer serves as the global head of diversity & inclusion at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence, where she has been a driving force since 2010 (as part of the wider BAE Systems business).

Her career has been dedicated to identifying and executing proactive customer satisfaction programmes, which has lent to her success with the ultimate customer: employees.   

Theresa’s career has spanned over 20 years in the technology industry, having held various posts in finance, account and relationship management, customer success and diversity & inclusion, among others. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, USA, as well as an MBA with a focus in Finance and Organisational Behaviour and Change from the University of Massachusetts, USA. 

HOW DID YOU LAND YOUR CURRENT ROLE? WAS IT PLANNED? 

Not at all. When I was approximately 6 months pregnant with my second child, I was invited to a ‘gender’ meeting. At that time, I was in the process of developing a Customer Success pilot for the business, focusing on evolving and maturing our customer engagement approach. It became very clear during the meeting that Diversity & Inclusion (DE&I) was another stream of customer success, but internally focused – ensuring that our own workforce represented a diverse range of perspectives. 

Recognising the significance of this intersection between customer success and DE&I, I approached our General Manager and proposed that I take a lead on DE&I as part of my pilot project. When I returned from maternity leave, the business was looking increasingly towards DE&I as a formal function, and I was asked to apply for a dedicated role in this area. I gave it some thought, and being a lover of change and transformation programmes, I decided to apply.

During the interview process, I emphasised the importance of DE&I, not just as a corporate initiative but as a fundamental driver of innovation, growth and employee satisfaction. Since taking the role, I have been dedicated to promoting these principles within BAE Systems Digital Intelligence, recognising that diversity in the STEM field and a commitment to inclusion are vital for our industry’s progress and success.

WHAT ARE THE KEY ROLES IN YOUR FIELD OF WORK, AND WHY DID YOU CHOOSE YOUR CURRENT EXPERTISE? 

In my view, two key characteristics that prove invaluable in DE&I are tenacity and resilience. In the context of women in STEM, these traits are especially crucial. Historically, STEM fields have been male-dominated and inherently resistant to change, and it takes tenacity to break through these barriers.

Resilience is needed to navigate challenges and overcome gender biases that still exist in the industry when you are consistently getting knocked back.

As for how I arrived at this expertise, I don’t think I consciously chose it; rather, it evolved naturally through the diverse experiences I’ve accumulated throughout my career journey. BAE Systems Digital Intelligence recognised the importance of DE&I, and I saw an opportunity to drive meaningful change. My journey in DE&I is about ensuring that women, underrepresented groups and diverse voices have a seat at the table.

DID YOU (OR DO YOU) HAVE A ROLE MODEL IN TECH OR BUSINESS IN GENERAL?

My mother and father. My mother was a pioneer of work-life balance, successfully pursuing no  less than 4 degrees, including 2 master’s degrees and a Ph.D., all while working full time, raising a family and always putting us first. My father was an innovator in the manufacturing industry, championing equity in the workplace not only before it existed, but when it was discouraged. The relationships and respect he accumulated from his teams are second to none. 

I never looked for role models outside of my own home because I didn’t need to.

I still look to them for advice and motivation. And they are my biggest fans!

WHAT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF IN YOUR CAREER, SO FAR? 

Balancing family and work while continuing to develop in your career is a significant task, one that is too often underestimated and just expected of people. I take immense pride in successfully managing this delicate balance. We must support individuals in their unique life circumstances, regardless of their background or personal responsibilities.

WHAT DOES AN AVERAGE WORK DAY LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?

Nothing in my day is average. If it was, then I wouldn’t be getting DE&I right! It’s important to stay focused and ensure the business is fostering a truly inclusive environment. This culture is essential for attracting and retaining diverse talent, which is critical for the growth and innovation of BAE Systems Digital Intelligence and the STEM field as a whole.

ARE THERE ANY SPECIFIC SKILLS OR TRAITS THAT YOU NOTICE COMPANIES LOOK FOR WHEN YOU’RE SEARCHING FOR ROLES IN YOUR FIELD? 

Companies often place a strong emphasis on experience and a track record of consistent, successful delivery. We want candidates who demonstrate an understanding of the value of DE&I in the workplace, recognising the benefits of different perspectives and being open and capable of creating an environment that makes use of them.

HAS ANYONE EVER TRIED TO STOP YOU FROM LEARNING AND DEVELOPING IN YOUR PROFESSIONAL LIFE, OR HAVE YOU FOUND THE TECH SECTOR SUPPORTIVE?

In short, yes, but I’d describe it as a lack of support to develop rather than outright obstruction. The outcome is the same but the actions are different. It’s a more subtle form of hindrance, often characterised by passive-aggressive actions and attitudes. This underscores the importance of cultivating a workplace that actively encourages growth for all employees.

HAVE YOU EVER FACED INSECURITIES AND ANXIETIES DURING YOUR CAREER, AND HOW DID YOU OVERCOME THEM?

Of course! I am immensely confident, and I hope people see and feel that when working with me. That’s why it’s important to say that I’ve definitely experienced moments of insecurity and anxiety in my career journey. I navigate and overcome each one differently.  

Firstly, I have a strong support system consisting of family and friends that frequently remind me of my skills and ability to achieve. At work, I keep a tight group of confidants that I can speak to openly and, more importantly, laugh with. I also find that stepping away from a stressful situation and refocusing with my family is an effective way to decompress and return with a clearer perspective.

Overcoming insecurities is essential for underrepresented groups in STEM, and a supportive network and work-life balance can play a significant role in building confidence and resilience.

ENTERING THE WORLD OF WORK CAN BE DAUNTING. DO YOU HAVE ANY WORDS OF ADVICE FOR ANYONE FEELING OVERWHELMED?

My advice to those feeling overwhelmed is this: you are not alone in experiencing these feelings. It’s a common part of the journey, especially for those breaking barriers and striving for change. While the road may be challenging, don’t let it dent your confidence.

The tech industry benefits immensely from diverse perspectives, and your unique viewpoint is a valuable asset.

Remember that your career is a marathon, not a sprint.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE OTHER WOMEN WANTING TO REACH THEIR CAREER GOALS IN TECHNOLOGY?

For those aspiring to achieve their career goals in STEM, it’s crucial to believe in yourself and recognise your strengths. Be unapologetically successful. And don’t be afraid to fail. It’s the things you don’t succeed at that will make you even better.

At BAE Systems Digital Intelligence, we understand the value of DE&I. We are committed to fostering an environment where all individuals, regardless of their background, can thrive and contribute to our mission of driving innovation in the technology sector.

Through our strategic partnerships and initiatives, we aim to inspire and engage the next generation in STEM fields. For instance, our collaboration with InnovateHer connects students with industry role models and provides e-learning platforms in schools across the North West of England. We’re also teaming up with organisations such as Code First Girls, Coding Black Females and Black Tech Fest to provide equal opportunities for all ages, genders and ethnicities. We want to show people that there are multiple pathways to success, be it through apprenticeships, internships or immediately after getting a university degree.

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