BLOG: Diversity and inclusion in the workplace and beyond

23 June, 2021

Jon Ager joined British Antarctic Survey as Director of the UK Antarctic Infrastructure Modernisation Programme in 2019, after serving for almost 35 years in the Royal Air Force and aerospace industry. Jon leads the programme of work that will deliver new polar research vessel, the RRS Sir David Attenborough, and associated supporting infrastructure such as new wharves at Rothera in the British Antarctic Territory and at King Edward Point in South Georgia. This Pride Month 2021, he reflects on his experiences of equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace and the importance of finding and celebrating a diverse workforce in the polar regions and beyond.

When I look at myself in the mirror, I am reminded that I am about as close to a stereotype of a ‘pale, stale, male’ that I can be. At face value, diversity would appear to be some distant theme that has yet to make its mark on me. If you were to dig a little deeper, as I have done, researching the origins of my family history, you would probably only reinforce that perception. If you wait a little longer, the colour of my beard would not just reflect my age but might hint also at my genetic roots from centuries ago; but even this would not help you understand what I am thinking or feeling. If you are lucky enough to really get to know me, you would realise that I have been touched by the reality and beauty of diversity and inclusion.

For someone who spent a large part of their life in the Armed Forces, I witnessed very little diversity in my workplace. Indeed, diversity was not just rare but, for many years, it was simply not encouraged.  Colleagues who did come from a diverse or different background were often marginalised, ridiculed or in some cases forced to leave a job they loved because they were, for example, not heterosexual. My wife, who also served in the Forces was, I am proud to say, one of the first group of women who were ‘permitted’ to return to work once their first child was born; prior to this any woman having had a child was forced to ‘exit’. The loss of talent from such approaches was clearly short-sighted, but the impact that this had on friends and colleagues has been immense and life changing. This all happened less than 30 years ago, but we think little now of the incredible journey that we been on to reach a more inclusive society, however imperfect it still is.

A person wearing a military uniform
Wideawake Airfield, Ascension Island (2009)

That career spanned an era of ‘Cold War’ with real barriers to travel and freedom, when countries were closed, and access prohibited. For good or ill, many of the constraints that I remember have been removed and there is a freedom for many (but not all) to flow across the globe in a way that had been limited before. Globalisation and cultural inclusion can be challenging, but the richness that this brings can also be rewarding at a personal, organisational and national level.

I am fortunate that work and recreation have allowed me to explore our planet. That insight into different cultures and behaviours has broadened my mind on gender, religion, and identity. Never having much cared for history whilst at school, the fascination of piecing together events, places, and dates as if to solve a puzzle and to make sense of the world has given me greater cultural understanding. Whether visiting the holiest sites in Jerusalem or Bethlehem, swimming with the crowds in Delhi or Hong Kong, or sharing fruit cake with the children in Kathmandu, it was obvious to me that there is so much more that connects us than separates us. Shared history, perhaps interpreted differently, but shared, nevertheless.

A group of people walking on a city street
Kathmandu (1987)

While I recognise that my former employer is still on a positive journey to better represent in its ranks the diversity that we see in our Nation today, outside in a civilian world I have seen it to be better. My first job out of uniform was to work with a software company based in Coventry. For me, it was a wake-up call, which proved that you simply cannot take a human being at face value. Each and every one of us has a different set of life experiences and skills that collectively make us unique. That team was remarkable for its passion, drive, skills, and output – they taught me to consider when hiring in new talent not to simply select another clone. I know now that if someone takes me out of my comfort zone, the chances are that they will provide an insight that I might not otherwise have gained, and that they will have skills that will complement mine.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. We talk about being inclusive and supporting diversity, but in specialist fields it is sometimes hard to find the ‘specialists’ let alone attract those from a diverse background.  This too can be compounded by geographic location, but if COVID-19 has given us nothing else, it has given us the confidence to build diverse teams that are not dependant on a single location. So, I have learned that we must lift our gaze not just to our working environment, but beyond that, to inspire those in education and those who are setting out on early careers. It is our responsibility to foster an inclusive and welcoming work environment, and to inspire those who have a career choice to make, to join us on our wonderful journey of diversity.

As we celebrate Pride Month, I challenge us all to appreciate and include in our teams, the richest canvas of diverse talent we can find, and to reflect and celebrate the beauty that it brings.

A group of people looking at each other
Local community engagement (2010)


The First Polar Pride:

British Antarctic Survey cultural values, equality and diversity:

Diversity in UK Polar Science Initiative: