From rebellious teenager to diversity champion, via the British Army

Justine Hodgkinson’s experiences in the military armed her with the skills, values and confidence to become a third-sector leader and champion of women in the workplace.

Like many servicemen and women, it was a family member that inspired Justine Hodgkinson to join the Armed Forces. After leaving school as a rebellious teenager with few qualifications and having spent years listening to her older brother’s exotic stories of life in the Royal Air Force, she enlisted with the Army in 1987. “It sounded like the ticket to a more exciting life that would let me see some of the world,” she recalls.

Ms Hodgkinson served for six and a half years, initially for a brief time in the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) and then as an analyst in the Intelligence Corps where she played a key role contributing to national security during the first Gulf War. She credits the Army with turning her from a “girl into a self-sufficient woman who could stand in front of any person, regardless of rank, and confidentially deliver briefings and work presentations”.

When she wanted to start a family, she knew her time in the forces was up. “Soldiering on” after having a baby was brand new at the time, she says, and she had seen the difficulties it had presented to a friend. She was also due to get married, so decided to leave the Army and begin a new chapter. But it wouldn’t necessarily be an easy journey.

“Thankfully resettlement has come a long way since I left the Army because back then I was given limited advice and had to make my own way,” she says. “If maternity leave and soldiering on had been better, I may have stayed in longer. I loved being an analyst, the opportunities, my mates. Living in Cyprus for three years was a big plus and I was paid well. Transitioning was exciting and daunting in equal measure, but luckily I had support around me, and moving into a new home and starting a family gave me focus.”

After becoming a mum, Ms Hodgkinson did jobs for several years fitting around her family, “bouncing from one thing to another”, but soon realised money didn’t motivate her, people did. Her desire to help people live the lives they want to live saw her pursue residential social work and then the third sector, where she has worked for 15 years.

Championing women

In 2014, she took over as CEO of Advocacy Focus, a north-west based charity that provides advocacy services and mental health first aid training. She had made it her mission to improve working standards for women and mothers, transforming the charity’s culture into a supportive environment encouraging and promoting the health and wellbeing of every employee – from a range of parent-friendly policies to an “All Fine Hotline” for staff to speak to a manager out of hours if they are stressed or upset.

Ms Hodgkinson has also boldly taken on delicate issues that companies typically avoid but are important to the wellbeing of female staff, such as how the menopause affects women in the workplace. She has raised awareness of the issue, including how women can be better supported, whilst educating younger staff members. One Advocacy Focus employee said: “If it wasn’t for the caring and compassionate culture Justine has created in our charity, and for her personal support, I would no longer be working – I would have quit work as a result of debilitating menopausal symptoms and lost my way.”

Her admirable efforts saw her awarded with the prestigious Champion of Women Award at the 2019 British Ex-Forces in Business Awards, the world’s largest celebration of veterans in second careers. The high-profile programme is dedicated to increasing visibility of business role models for service leavers while promoting a positive narrative of veterans as assets to employers across all sectors. Last year, the awards showcased the achievements of nearly 300 veterans and reservists at events in London and Glasgow attended by more than 1,400 business leaders and over 450 employers.

“The Ex-Forces in Business Awards is a positive leap forward, not only showcasing what can be achieved but opening the narrative around how veterans can enhance any workplace.”

Justine Hodgkinson collects the 2019 Champion of Women Award, sponsored by Santander.

“I was incredibly honoured and, in all honesty, shocked! I was in a room full of the good and the great and never expected to hear my name called. It meant the world to me on a personal level, as it was for championing women, what they bring to the table and the wonderful things they achieve – sometimes against all odds or personal circumstances.

“Many women, myself included, can suffer from imposter syndrome the higher up the chain they go, so this was a reminder that I’d contributed, made a difference and it hadn’t gone unnoticed. I wouldn’t have been there at all, however, if it wasn’t for the people in my life, the opportunities I’ve had and the wonderful team I work with and who nominated me. I’ve won this award with their support, guidance and respect.

“When I look at the way the US and other countries value their servicemen and women, our country has a long way to go. We have made significant strides, but in many ways they are a hidden asset until the wheels come off. By recognising the incredible contribution veterans make to their country on completion of their service, the Ex-Forces in Business Awards is a positive leap forward, not only showcasing what can be achieved but opening the narrative around how veterans can enhance any workplace.”

Transferable skills

Ms Hodgkinson credits the Army with much of the success she’s had in the career she has carved out in the not-for-profit sector, not only from the extensive training she received as an analyst but also the military values that have remained embedded within her. Her advice to other service leavers is to think about how their transferable values and skills translate into the career they want to pursue after leaving the Armed Forces.

“The military drills into you an ability to work to strict timescales with a high level of self-discipline and motivation,” she says. “My role in intelligence taught me to problem solve, ask the bigger question and see the bigger picture. It also gave me many opportunities to talk to people from all walks of life and at all levels. Confidence, assertiveness and the ability to work collaboratively were all the order of the day.

“I learned how not to do things, too. There was an element of misogyny and it was a very male, testosterone-fuelled environment, which I learned to navigate and challenge. I ultimately developed a keen skill of knowing which battles to pick! I had some amazing mentors in the Army who showed me what real leadership is. But I also learned the importance of family and how hard it can be when you are posted miles away from home, and about how key connections are crucial and should be cherished so you get the right balance in your life.”

For more information about Advocacy Focus, visit