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Women flying high in the RAF

PICTURED: Flt Lt Joan Ochuodho

THIS YEAR marks the 100th birthday of the Royal Air Force (RAF), with many milestones, changes and achievements to celebrate. This is also the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote.

In 1918, women meeting strict criteria such as householders, graduates of British universities and occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5, were granted the vote by parliament. How society must have been different in its perception of what women could bring to the table.

An Act of Parliament (qualification of women) was also passed in the same year, allowing women to stand as electoral candidates.

Fast forward to 2017, 208 women MPs were elected in the General Elections, 32 per cent of all MPs and a record high. Here we are in 2018, a year of celebration of centenary milestones.

The theme of equality, diversity and inclusion, specifically in the context of opportunities for women is at the forefront of every organisation’s priorities; in fact, featuring prominently in many an organisation’s strategic objectives.

While the debate surrounding female representation in boardrooms, equal pay and women in leadership and whether progress is being made at the right pace or even happening at all continues, my lived experience as a female officer in the RAF is certainly one of exponential positive change.

PIONEER: Sonia Thompson was a World War II instrument repairer in the Women’s Auxiliary
Air Force (WAAF)

Going back 28 years ago to be precise, I may not have been proudly sitting in my office chair as a Flight Commander, purely because of my choice to have children. Until August 1990, women in the British Armed Forces who became pregnant had to leave the services.

While the issue of maternity leave and the associated rights is still contentious and a theme of controversy in many countries, I can proudly say that to a significant degree, because of retention of women post maternity in the British Armed Forces, I am now able to look up to female role models that I can relate to, that inspire me in an environment I am proudly part of.

We may not yet have a female Chief of the Air Staff, but I am optimistic that we will one day.


My optimism is punctuated by the fact that in 2013 Elaine West, the first female regular service woman to hold two star rank, was promoted to the rank of Air Vice Marshal. Fewer than five years later, the RAF has two more female two star officers with a good number females in critical senior roles following suit.

The voice that was given to women in 1918, was crucial to establishing a platform from which women have created outstanding legacies. We have a sitting female Prime Minister so really, society is accepting that gender is not a defining factor in the determination of good leadership.

I hope in 10 years’ time there will be greater milestones to celebrate.

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