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Women in security: Smashing the glass ceiling

28th June 2019

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Our Smashing the glass ceiling series was launched specially to coincide with the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019. In this final post, we talk about the role of women in security, from setting up places of safety to fighting on the frontline. We feature the Metropolitan Police Service Commissioner Cressida Dick, and from history, the soldier Christian ’Kit’ Cavanagh plus army nurse Mary Seacole.


Cressida Dick: The first female commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service

Women have been part of the police force for more than 100 years. In 1915, Edith Smith became the first female police constable with official powers of arrest. She worked as part of the Women’s Police Service, founded in 1914 by volunteers. Following WW1, attitudes towards women had started to shift. In 1918, some women were granted the vote and the Home Secretary ordered the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service to recruit women. In 1919, 21 women joined the Met.

A picture of Cressida Dick with an adorable puppy
Cressida Dick at the Puppy Parade 2019, credit: Metropolitan Police Service

Cressida Dick, born in Oxford in 1960, became the Met’s first female commissioner in 2017. During her 36 years in the police force, she has fought crime in Oxford, achieved the highest grade in her year for her Masters in Criminology from Cambridge University, and led counter-terror operations for the London Olympics. As commissioner, she no longer works on the frontline full-time but spends two weeks a year working shifts alongside colleagues to maintain her understanding of how demanding and important their roles are.

Earlier this year, she was interviewed for BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. “The fact that I am seen as a bit different,” she says, “makes young people think: ’I might try, I feel different but I might try.’” Cressida is also the first openly gay Met commissioner. As it stands, almost a third of British police officers are women, but she would like to see this rise further as the stereotypes surrounding police officers continue to fall away.

Christian ’Kit’ Cavanagh: Joined the British Army in 1693

Women have only been allowed to apply for all combat roles in the British army since October 2018. But they have been fighting, often in disguise, for hundreds of years.

In 1693, aged 26, Christian ’Kit’ Cavanagh cut her hair, put on men’s clothing and enlisted with the Royal Scots Greys Dragoons. Kit was an Irishwoman and her motivation was to find her husband Richard Welsh who had disappeared and was rumoured to be part of the British army. She found him thirteen years later, and by then she was a skilled soldier.

Her gender wasn’t discovered until 1706 when she sustained a skull injury. When the brigade commander heard her story, he ordered that she remain under the care of the army and continue to be paid. She was later discharged but allowed to remain as a sulteress, that is, a merchant who sells provisions to the army.

A portrait of Christian ‘Kit’ Cavanagh
Christian ‘Kit’ Cavanagh enlisted in 1693

In 1712, she was presented to Queen Anne, a figure who knew only too well what it meant to be a woman in a man’s world. Kit was granted a reward, a pension and when she died in 1739, she was buried with full military honours.

Women in the British army today

Two hundred years later, when WWII broke out, British women had the right to vote but no right to fight on the frontline. They fulfilled supporting roles through the Auxiliary Territorial Service, which became the Women’s Royal Army Corps in 1949. In 1975, the Sex Discrimination Act improved gender parity for many industries but Section 85 continued to prevent women fulfilling combat roles.

In 2018, it was announced that the ban would finally be lifted. With Major General Sharon Nesmith becoming the first woman to command a British army brigade in 2014 and Susan Ridge becoming the first female Major General in 2015, it seems at last there is movement.

Mary Seacole: Creating a place of safety for soldiers in 1855

For many years, the official role for women on the battlefields has been as nurses. Mary Seacole, born in 1805, inherited her passion for nursing from her Jamaican mother, who cared for invalid soldiers. Her father was a Scottish Lieutenant, enabling her to observe the work of doctors in the British Army. Mary combined Caribbean and African herbal remedies with practices learned from European military doctors in treating her patients.

In 1854, she applied to treat soldiers in the Crimean War, the first war to have official, nurses. Her request was refused, almost certainly on account of her mixed-race. Determined to help, she set off to Crimea herself, where she formed the ’British Hotel.’ She used the money made from selling food, drinks and equipment to care for the ill and injured soldiers. She became known as ’Mother Seacole.’

A portrait of Mary Seacole
Mary Seacole set up a place of safety for Crimean War soldiers

When the war ended in 1857, she returned to Britain, bankrupted and in ill health. In a reversal of roles, soldiers wrote to the newspapers to praise her work and set up a charity gala to raise money. It is said that 80,000 people attended. Later that year, she published her autobiography, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, the first to be written by a British black woman. It sold out its first run and was reprinted in 1858. She died in 1881, admired by many as a nurse, entrepreneur and author.

Security at Starling

At Starling, men and women from all over the world have built and tested our mobile current accounts to make them secure and simple for everyone to use. For Ellana, a cyber security analyst, gender balance and diversity are especially important in this area: “We need diverse perspectives because the challenges we face are diverse and ever changing. It’s what creates a high performing team.”

Ellana initially applied for a customer service role. But when she expressed an interest in cyber security, she was introduced to Simon Waring, Head of Information Security, for an interview. “It became very obvious that she had potential in cyber security,” he says.

She has been at Starling since September 2018 and recently helped recruit two new members of the security team. “We want to know what kind of person you are, not whether you’ve got all the experience we need - no one has that,” she says.

To read more articles in our Smashing the glass ceiling series, have a look at women in football, women in banking or women in technology.

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