With the right support and development, men and women can thrive in STEM careers in the military says Air Marshal Sue Gray, the highest-ranking woman in the British Armed Forces. Here, she answers five key questions.
1. Does your position as the highest-ranking woman in the Armed Forces change perceptions about military careers for women?
I’ve been told it does — and it was one of my considerations when taking this job. I’m starting to see female engineers coming back into the forces after having families. Impetus is building. The Armed Forces is brilliant at nurturing talent, regardless of gender.
Anything is possible in the Air Force if you have the right skillsets to do it; or if you have a talent which needs developing. We still don’t have large numbers of women in senior roles, but that’s slowly being addressed. So, we are getting there, but have a way to go.
2. What can be done to attract more young women into STEM?
Many young women are unaware of the range of career opportunities STEM offers, not just in the RAF, but generally. We need to make them, their teachers and their parents realise what’s available. Also, young people need consistent, accurate careers advice about what they can do with their qualifications, because STEM isn’t just about being an engineer with your sleeves rolled up and dirty hands.
3. You’re an engineer. What have been your proudest achievements?
Well, for example, having sole responsibility for signing off remotely piloted air vehicles to fly. Also, being deployed overseas in the First and Second Gulf Wars and watching the development of less experienced, but very talented, servicemen and women.
4. What attracted you to a career in STEM?
The novelty of doing something different. Unfortunately, women are still something of a ‘novelty’ in STEM — or a minority at least. In engineering, I see young women who are engaged in STEM activity, but not necessarily thinking of it as a career. That’s partly a cultural attitude because, traditionally, engineering is not what women ‘do’.
5. What would your advice be to any young woman considering a career in STEM?
Do it, if STEM is what you enjoy. If you want to change your mind down the line, you can, but you might hit upon the one thing that changes your life right away. With a little bit of support, you can do anything.