Breaking the Bias: The Rachel-Gardner Poole Story

Tuesday 8th March is International Womens Day and we want to feature a personal story about one of our women at Connected Places Catapult. Rachel Gardner-Poole, Chief Operating Officer, is telling her stories and past experiences around International Womens Day’s theme of ‘Breaking the Bias’. Here’s her story.

I’ve always been inquisitive, as a child my favourite word was ‘why’ and I’d grown up in a world where to do the right thing often meant challenging the status quo. Being a bit different – studying for A levels or going to University wasn’t considered normal in the area where I lived. Looking back, I challenged a lot in my early career without realising it.

My first job broke a lot of norms. I’d applied for a graduate scheme that had a picture of a plane and a ‘mathematicians wanted’ sign. I loved aircraft, despite never going on one and I’d always wanted to fly. Instead, I started working with submarines and on my first day, realised I was the first female to ever join that department of 150 people. Employees attended a meeting the previous week and were told to change their behaviour and language as a girl was starting on Monday.

I was working overseas for months onboard ships, in portacabins and sometimes onboard submarines. Occasionally I had feelings of being suffocated by ‘father like’ concern on my whereabouts when we were away and sometimes resorted to doing stealth-like escapes from the group on my day off. However, I found everyone more accepting of me & my professional skills than the aviation world I experienced later on.

In the late 1990s I started a role testing military aircraft with the offer to part-fund my Private Pilot Licence which felt like a dream come true. However, the idea of me flying seemed to upset colleagues and even those I didn’t know wanted to share their views.

Several said that women shouldn’t fly – “you might faint or get distracted” were common reasons. Later, when I considered promotion or a training course, I had a similar reaction including some line managers who suggested it was a waste of an opportunity for a male colleague as I might decide to get married and have children. Reflecting now, it seems incredible that these views were expressed so openly.

My first leadership role was based in the USA and some UK-based colleagues tried to get me removed from my role. Following a review, it was determined that their justification was they didn’t believe a female should be in a leadership position. I found the whole experience very stressful and frustrating. But looking at the positives, it inspired me to take a career break from work to achieve a life-long ambition and I went to flying college full-time to do my Commercial Pilot training.

These are a few examples. In all scenarios, I have tried not to get angry or upset but instead, I challenged the views of others using logical arguments.

My inquisitive nature means I always find other viewpoints fascinating even if they seem wrong or don’t make sense to me.

Sometimes I would persuade people. Sometimes it would spur me on to prove that I could do something considered impossible. Other times I would highlight the issue to get it resolved.

Once or twice, I chose to leave a job as I couldn’t see a way forward. Finding senior advocates (often, but not always women) has also been incredibly helpful.

I have found myself championing the case of other women at work over the last 25 years. I have also encouraged and mentored women who may doubt themselves or wonder if they have what it takes to do a certain role.

The need to challenge the status quo may be less overt than it was 10-20 years ago. It’s now more about spotting the subtle language, highlighting attitudes that exist but aren’t as obvious as they used to be. Importantly, standing up for others when things don’t seem right.

But one thing I have found is that the more you challenge, the more challenging feels normal, the easier it is to do and the more you will instigate change