Woman silhouette

The sky's the limit for women, whatever career they choose

As one of the first women pilots in the Royal Air Force, Mandy Hickson knows what it takes to be a strong, talented and determined woman working in a male-dominated profession. She is a motivational speaker and the author of An Officer, Not a Gentleman: The inspirational journey of a pioneering female fighter pilot.


28 of March of 2022

When I first decided to be a pilot in 1987 when I was 14 years old, women weren’t allowed to fly in the Royal Air Force. I was at university when they changed the rules and I had put lots of things in place by then. I had my private pilot’s license and was ready to apply.

I failed the RAF pilot test twice which consisted of different pilot aptitude tests performed on a computer that involved memory tests, spatial awareness, hand to eye coordination, mental arithmetic and math problems. There seemed to be unconscious bias in the system. Most women failed the tests, while most men passed. The RAF recognised they might need to change their tests. They did and we now see a more fair assessment.

In the end, after much persuasion, I joined, in the first waves of women fliers.

There were quite a few women on my officer training course, but then people peeled away to do different things. At each stage of training, there was usually just me and sometimes one or two other girls, along with 15 or so men.

When you do something new, you do it because you feel passionate about it, because you want to, not because you want to be a pioneer. But when I look back now, I realise that’s what I was.

Part of the problem, or part of the solution?

I didn’t see myself as being hugely different, but it became more challenging when I arrived in my frontline squadron. They had never had a female pilot before. There were no female toilets. There was no flying clothing for women. I had to wear Y-fronts, which for a woman is not very comfy – they cut into you in all the wrong places.

Then there were the typical, thoughtless, flippant comments. ‘You can tell which jet is Mandy’s – it’s the one that’s not parked straight.’ That kind of thing.

I would get 20 different comments like that every day from 20 different people. It was tedious, but I quickly developed a thick skin. It was actually my good male friends who called out the poor behaviour of others. I had great support from them all the way through.

That’s a really important lesson. Regardless of your gender or your culture, if you see behaviour you don’t like, you can either be part of the problem, or part of the solution.

A sense of belonging is so important

There is a difference between fitting in and belonging. To begin with, in the RAF, I was trying to be something I wasn’t. I became much more blokey, swore a lot, drank a lot. I even found I was starting to dress like a man.

And then I recognised I didn’t want to become a man. There was a moment of reflection when I realised I didn’t have to be them.

We all need to be our true selves at work. Finding a sense of belonging is the key to high performance.

So I started to wear dresses or skirts or whatever I wanted to wear again.

Be authentic and don’t give in to imposter syndrome

It’s about authenticity. You can have much more impact by bringing yourself as a feminine woman, if that’s what you are.

It is about playing to your strengths, and using those strengths. Rather than just thinking: because I am a woman in a senior position, people are going to think differently of me, you should have confidence in yourself. It doesn’t matter what your gender or identity is.

If you ever have those doubts, or any kind of imposter syndrome, look for the evidence that you can’t do it. Often there is none. But there’s a lot of evidence that you can.

You can’t be what you can’t see

I have worked with lots of construction companies. In some ways, it has been really refreshing. For starters, there is an entire set of clothing designed for women in the construction industry – so, no Y-fronts.

But there is still work to do to make it an appealing and truly welcoming profession for women. For young apprentices coming through, there have to be more female role models – you can’t be what you can’t see.

Some careers may always be more male-oriented. But what’s more vital is never to stop anyone doing what they want to do: if you are a woman, become an engineer. It is not a man thing, or a woman thing, there can always be diversity.

Inclusivity messages must come from the top

You need people from all different backgrounds. We talk a lot about cultural diversity and gender diversity, but we also want cognitive diversity. If you only employ people like us, people like you, you will only ever get the same ideas and the same results.

Hopefully, we have more socially aware people coming through now. Men in the construction industry don’t have to be, or behave, in any particular established way.

It is essential these messages come from the top. It has got to be more than just words on a wall: inclusivity has to be practiced and has to be the language everyone is using.

We need active role models as well. A bit of positive discrimination would be a good thing to start the tide turning. It could be used in companies to get women on boards or in other senior roles. Women can do the job just as well as men. They just haven’t had that opportunity or been pushed as much.

I had a reunion in London recently where I spoke to guys from my RAF days. They had been reflecting on their behaviour from 20 years ago and wondering how tough it must have been for me.

Culturally, that’s just where we were then. It does not mean it was right. And it’s not the way things should be done now or in future.

So let’s keep holding that mirror up to ourselves. What have we learned? How have we all reflected on that? We should analyse what brought us to this point. But where we go next is more important.

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