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The First Female Defence Chief will be from the RAF

Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, gave a wide ranging interview on his departure from the role of Chief of Defence Staff. One of his contentious statements was that he can imagine one day his role being filled by a woman and that the armed forces must do more to give females the opportunity to reach the highest ranks.

Sir Stuart has reached the top by fairly unconventional means. He is the first CDS to have been wholly state educated. He was the outside contender when he was promoted from Vice Chief to the top job. Therefore his points come from a position of some authority.

But is the RAF most likely to appoint the first female 3 and 4 stars? Let’s first address why the armed forces lag behind the civilian sector in terms of female representation in the boardroom. One reason is that the MOD does not hire laterally; we are not going to see a female FTSE 100 CEO appointed as a general, admiral or air marshal any time soon. Talent has to be nurtured and grown from within and this process can take 30 to 40 years for a senior officer to gain relevant operational, command and staff experience.

It stands to reason therefore that the service that first opened its combat roles to women will be the first to see a woman gain that essential warfighting experience and rise to the top ranks.  That service was the RAF, which in 1992 opened fast jet training slots to women. This openness to change could be attributed to the RAF’s unique culture. As the “junior service”, the air force has a history of disrupting the status quo, innovating and not worrying too much about social class. These attributes make the force well placed to embrace change and challenge.

Proving the point that experience takes time, it wasn’t until 2015 that the first female fast jet squadron commander, Wg Cdr Nikki Thomas of IX Sqn, was appointed. For RAF officers, commanding a flying squadron is the first step on the ladder to senior command.

We’ve yet to see a female station commander of a major operational base but that time cannot be far away. Currently there are at least 3 serving female 2 star officers. However none of those are likely to reach the top slot of CAS or CDS. This is down to something gender neutral, their choice of branch. Irrespective of sex, it is unlikely an engineer, administrator, air traffic controller or lawyer will ever attain the role of Chief.

Comparing to the sister services, the RAF stands a much better chance of seeing a female 4 star. The Royal Navy has yet to see many women in starred ranks, despite opening sea service to females in the 1990s. As recently as 2013, there were fewer than 50 female officers above the rank of Commander in the navy. On the other hand, history was made in 2004 when Cdre Carolyn Strait was appointed as CO of HMNB Clyde at a time when women weren’t permitted to serve on the submarines stationed at her base. Progress for the dark blue has stalled since then, with a female Rear Admiral yet to emerge.

The Army is even further behind, with close combat roles only now beginning to be opened to women. However, in Generals Richards and Wall we have seen two chiefs from the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers respectively. Women have been permitted to serve within these Combat Support arms for years, so it’s possible that a sufficiently talented individual could emerge this way. Currently, the head of the Army Legal Service is Major General Susan Ridge and with Brigadier Sharon Nesmith commanding 1 Signal Brigade progress for the Army is looking good.

It’s possible that an RAF female may reach the rank of Air Chief Marshal within 15 to 20 years; the Army could be waiting 40 years to see a woman four star General. Nevertheless, the forces are changing along with society, which is vital to ensure the best talent regardless of gender, race or religion is available to defend our country.

Dave has Airforce experience with frontline, overseas and staff headquarters experience. Most recently he served in a joint environment.

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