Case Study: Captain Ellie Ablett MBE, Royal Navy

Captain Ellie Ablett is a trailblazing female officer and her career has encompassed everything from amphibious operations, sea appointments, high profile assignments, time in the Ministry of Defence, an operational tour in Iraq and promotions culminating in her present role as Command of HMS Raleigh.

HMS Raleigh is the Royal Navy’s modern-day basic training facility where new recruits from all branches of the Service receive their 10-week Initial Naval Training to become Naval Ratings.  The 239-acre main site at Torpoint, Cornwall includes a maritime training centre on the River Lynher and satellite bases for leadership and team-working exercises on Dartmoor and the Rame peninsular. Seven schools on site provide a broad spectrum of training, ranging from the Submarine School, to Damage Control and Board & Search, which also train members of the Royal Marines, Royal Fleet Auxiliary and the Royal Navy Reserve.  On a typical day there are around 2,200 people on site.

Captain Ablett is committed to promoting effective talent management and an inclusive culture across the Royal Navy.  In 2013 she established a ground-breaking professional network for women in the Naval Service and was awarded the MBE in the 2014 New Year’s Honours List.

As part of Seafarers Awareness Week, she talks about how the Royal Navy offers incredible job and career opportunities to both women and men, how the professional network operates and how the organization strives to be a compassionate employer to all its personnel.

Captain Ellie Ablett joined the Royal Navy (RN) after completing her degree in Modern History at Somerville College, Oxford.  Her father was in the RAF and so she grew up with a good understanding of the services and thought she would be a good fit, but it was the infectious enthusiasm of an RN officer at a recruitment presentation that really captured her imagination.  One of the strongest selling points was the fact that in 1989 the first women went to sea and in 1993 the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) was integrated with the rest of the service, meaning that she would be able pursue a career on an equal footing with men.

When she faced the Commissioning Board she simply had in mind that she would stay for as long as she was enjoying it and for as long as she could make a difference.  It’s a motto she still follows today and repeats to the new recruits starting their basic training at HMS Raleigh, saying it’s not always necessary to start with an end date in mind.

She describes the early years of her training as unremarkable in terms of gender difference – women had been part of the RN for several years. It was tough at times because women had to do exactly the same as the men, even physical exercise, but they simply accepted it as part of the deal.  She recalls just thinking ‘this is what the Navy looks like’ and more than anything she and her fellow female officers wanted to blend in and to be the very best Naval Officers they could be.

She does recall getting quietly frustrated though, with being asked over and over what her plans were for motherhood – a question the men weren’t being asked, highlighting the assumption – widespread at the time – that children were only an issue for women to consider.

But for the majority of time she really didn’t think much about being a woman in a mainly male environment and carried on with her different assignments.

Last year (2017), was the centenary of the establishment of the WRNS and she supported the commemorations to recognise the amazing contribution these women made in peace and war times.  It was a learning experience and she acknowledges that when she joined she made the mistake of wanting to distance herself from the experience of the WRNS and did not support other women in the service.

At the time blending in and trying to minimise any ‘gender difference’ seemed the best strategy.  Now she feels that this was the wrong approach, women and men are undoubtedly different but that should not be seen as a problem, progression for either should be determined by ability not gender.

She established the Naval Servicewomen’s Network in 2013 shortly after her promotion to Commander – when she looked around and wondered – where have all the women gone?  It was still relatively common for women to choose to leave to raise children but it came as a shock, that so much talent, skill and training was simply walking out of the door.

Captain Ablett realised she wanted to make up for the years when she felt she hadn’t been supportive enough of the other women around her.  She looked at the experiences of other organisations – other uniformed services and corporate organisations – and decided that moving forward employee engagement, specifically a supportive collaborative women’s network, would go some way towards addressing this.

She wrote the business case, looking at ways to support, retain and maintain the enthusiasm of women who are spread out across units, often on their own.  Captain Ablett was clear that she wanted to do it on her terms but in practice she says that the Navy has been incredibly supportive.  The professional network has been in place for over five years now and it is contributing, along with forward-leaning, inclusive policies, to retaining more of the female talent, better recognition of Servicewomen’s contributions and improving morale.

Captain Ablett explains that the women’s professional network is a virtual network spanning the RN, open to the Regulars and the Reservists, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and the Royal Marines, organised by volunteers and using resources like a secure Facebook group.  She explains that it gives women in the service an opportunity to ask questions that some might think ‘silly’, to vent their frustrations, to share experiences and build mutual support frameworks.  It’s also a valuable driver for change as she reviews the content, highlighting any issues without naming individuals, to the RN’s policy unit so that they can be addressed.

The last bastion for the employment of women in the Services is ground close combat.  Through her Network and in her role as Commanding Officer HMS RALEIGH, she has been able to facilitate women’s involvement in the development of this discussion.  This has enabled the assumptions on both sides to be challenged and the approach to be guided by the experiences and lessons learned when women went to sea for the first time and more recently when they joined the Submarine Service.

Taking the network further she now organises an annual conference which creates an important focal point and encourages women to arrange local events supporting each other across different ships and units.  There’s also her initiative to provide mid seniority female officers with additional help to work through their professional goals and identify what they want to achieve at a key career stage.  Looking back Captain Ablett says that in your late 20s and early 30s women face many big career decisions, so by working with a civilian coach, the course participants can share experiences and genuinely explore their options more widely.

When asked what attracts young recruits to join the Navy today? she replies that it’s very much the same as when she joined – the RN offers real adventure, the chance to experience different countries around the world, the opportunity to make something of yourself and to gain valuable training and qualifications.   She adds that it’s possible to join as a Rating with no qualifications and find yourself in service and enrolled in an apprenticeship, doing something really meaningful in support of your country in a surprisingly short space of time.

She explains that the recruits at HMS Raleigh are aged between 16 and 36 years old.  Sometimes they might have had a career and a family, but be ‘looking for something more’.  For example, in her branch of the RN, Logistics, there are supply chain ratings, who might have been working in a civilian logistics company but hit a point where they think – what next?  The RN offers an incredible career using those skills to ensure that the service gets what it needs when its deployed, but offering so much more besides.

Lastly, asked about the highlights of her career Captain Ablett admits that as a sailor, time spent at sea is very special and she’s been lucky enough to have had plenty of time serving on various ships.  She says that the sea is a wonderful, and challenging environment, not least because it’s criss-crossed by all these invisible shipping super highways – all vital to global trade and bringing so much of what we take for granted every day, into the country.

She adds that the best bit about being on a ship is the camaraderie and the shared sense of purpose; the team are ready to undertake all of the tasks that government may require – whether that is providing disaster relief or countering piracy or tackling aggression. Whatever it is – in this service you are always ready to make a difference.

She also highlights the variety of duties on board.  As a logistics professional she has many secondary roles in addition to overseeing catering, supply chains and HR services.  She was also a flight deck officer for helicopters in any emergency and she was trained to lead a damage control team and coordinate an incident response.  All on top of the day job.

She has seen active service, working at Northwood, a Joint Service, multi-national environment, planning for operations in Afghanistan, and with time in Baghdad, Iraq amongst other things managing high profile visits in theatre.  She found herself in the desert, in fatigues, using all of her maritime logistics skills and experience but in a very different setting.

One of her most memorable experiences has been visiting South Georgia in the Falkland Islands, on South Atlantic patrol delivering supplies to the British Antarctic Survey teams. She describes it as the most amazingly beautiful, pristine environment.  Transit through the ice is a very different experience, everyone is on high alert, the vessel has increased watertight integrity, but the wildlife is incredible, particularly the penguins and seals.

She concludes that the Royal Navy today works hard to be a compassionate employer.  Time on deployment is serious and intensely focused, but shore time can be better structured where possible to give more time with families and to maintain a good work-life balance.  She says the service accepts that its contract is with serving personnel’s families as much as with them, because the families’ support and understanding is vital to the service too.   She concludes that while the RN does not get it right all the time, its heart is definitely in the right place.

Looking to the future Captain Ablett says that her motto still stands, to stay for as long as she’s enjoying it and for as long as she’s making a difference.  However, she adds… there has never been (notwithstanding HRH The Princess Royal, who is Admiral and Chief Commandant for Women in the Royal Navy), there has never been a serving female Admiral…. and that would really show that the RN values a woman’s contribution as much as a man’s – it would also clearly demonstrate that anyone who wants to aim for the top can do so.

Lastly, Captain Ablett says that Seafarers Awareness Week is hugely important initiative and one that she is very pleased to support and pleased to be involved with.  There are many, many wonderful, exciting and rewarding jobs and careers across the maritime sector, whether that’s with the Royal Navy, the Merchant Navy or any of the related sectors and services –  young people should make every effort to explore and consider the opportunities available to them