Fast Jet Performance

When Fighter Pilots Cry – Women and the End of Vertical Ambition

Picture credit – JTW Aviation Images ‏@JTWAviationImag

She was crying.

It happens, and I knew that the best thing to say was nothing at all.

‘Fuck! My eyes just leak, I don’t know why they do it, I’m so sorry!’ she stuttered.

Women always apologise and female pilots are no different. It’s a flaw they have that I suspect is borne out of living in a male dominated and patriarchal society that has yet to recognise them as equal.

She was crying because I had failed her flight.

I’d failed her flight because she was unsafe. But, as I told her, ‘We’ve all been unsafe at some point in our training, we just needed further guidance.’

A simple re-fly would do it.

‘Guys always think tears are a sign of weakness. They’re a sign of FRUSTRATION. She’s only crying so she won’t cut your throat in your sleep. So make nice and be grateful.’ ― Donna Barr, author

But girls’ eyes do leak more than boys. I could probably go so far as declaring that as a fact, but boys are not immune to displaying emotion too. I have told many a student that their days of flying fast jets were over. It was an unfortunate part of my job of being a Flight Commander on a flying training squadron and, believe me, boys cry too and they hate it just as much as the girls do.

And it’s for the same reasons; disappointment, frustration, a mistaken belief that the last couple of years have been wasted and that they have to start all over again, but above all – relief. A student that is ‘chopped’ from military flying training normally displays emotion because they have been striving for perfection for so long and now the pressure is finally off; they don’t have to perform anymore and they can just get a break.

We all need a break, sometimes.

We are often our own worst enemy, constantly demanding that we do more, striving for perfection and we are never content. But, in aviation, there are subtle differences between the men and women who fly. As men, we largely walk this journey with other men; women – they often walk it alone.

And in aviation, women still experience the same emotions as their male counterparts. They can love a beautiful sunset, get frustrated at a delayed clearance, feel the pressure as they study for a check ride and struggle to stay conscious in a 9g turn whilst merging with a hostile aircraft.

And they also die in exactly the same way as men do; death being a champion of gender equally in aviation.

Which is why, in military flying, both sexes are treated equally. They are taught the same way and paid the same money.

I haven’t seen anyone discriminate against women in a military cockpit, ever. I’ve been flying for my entire 20 year career and I’ve always felt women are just part of the same team on our squadrons.

But, a week ago, I was caught out and this time it was me who was discriminating.

Gender Discrimination and Essences

I was speaking at a small business event and I had included a slide of two friends of mine who were crewed into the same Tornado GR4 bomber for their tour in Afghanistan.

They are both women.

They were crewed together because they were sharing the same accommodation and therefore had the same sleep patterns and, believe me, having the same sleep pattern as your pilot or weapons officer is essential in a theatre of conflict.

The picture was taken in 2009 and is of them walking from their aircraft. I told the audience ‘I’ve included this picture to show you that women flying in the RAF is not an issue, really it isn’t.’

And I believe that, but then a young woman said, ‘If it’s not an issue then you shouldn’t need to show the picture.’

She was right.


It’s 2016 and, for some reason, I still feel the need to tell women that the RAF does not discriminate against women. A friend of mine works at a large consulting firm and she recently put up some media on Facebook celebrating ‘Women in the Military Awards’. She has a fierce intellect and I was surprised that she would post something which I felt was divisive so I called her up and questioned her decision. She told me that, in the civilian world, it was still necessary to promote equal rights for women in the workplace and her highlighting this event helps.

But it is true that, as a people, we are made up of different genders and men and women do think in dissimilar ways. In his book ‘The Way of the Superior Man’, David Diega looks at the contemporary masculine experience and says that men and women have a mixture of masculine and feminine essences that have to oppose in order for attraction to take place. If a woman develops masculine essence and a man develops a feminine essence then they will meet in the middle and enter the friendship zone. Sexual attraction takes place when one party has a very pronounced masculine essence and the other a feminine but it doesn’t matter to whom each one is allocated.

‘Sexual attraction is based on sexual polarity which is the force of passion that arcs between masculine and feminine poles.’ – David Diega

A feminine essence is one which seeks fullness and is creative, radiant, energetic, emphasising, carefree and volatile. A masculine essence is systemising, structured, rigid and has direction, vision, purpose and clarity. But men can have feminine essences and women, masculine. I have male friends who are very creative and carefree and I know women who are structured and have a very real purpose and direction to their lives.

The other night my wife and I were cooking together as I had just joined a company that sends you a box of food with recipe cards and my wife suggested we make one.

Bad idea.

For me a recipe is a checklist of things to do. I am a pilot and I follow checklists for everything; to miss a step is to be purposely negligent and could cause the loss of an aircraft.

To my wife a recipe is just a guide, something that she might occasionally glance at but, just because it says to fry the onions for 4 minutes, doesn’t mean that she should actually do it.

We argued then argued some more and eventually came out with something that looked a little bit like the meal in the picture, not that we could confirm it with each other because we were no longer on speaking terms.

But it did prove to me how institutionalised I have become, how I desire structure, boundaries and a direction. I’ve been in the military for 20 years and I’ve always had an orientation – I guess that’s why they call it military ‘bearing’. And this structured nature of the armed forces is very masculine in its concept. It is purposeful, rigid and uncompromising and exactly the opposite of the essence of femininity.

‘You are probably also familiar with darker aspects of the masculine desire for freedom. War, which is motivated by the desire for freedom, is a quintessential masculine pursuit. Most sports are ritualized war, but actual war itself resonates with the core of most men.’ – David Diega

And gender is also a massive factor in externalising violence but women just do not do it because they have not been conditioned to by the matriarch. In America 94% of mass homicides (4 or more deaths) are by men.

So, when I speak at a company and I highlight that the military is ‘gender neutral’, I am wrong. For by the very nature of what it is designed to do, in the application of force and its very purpose, it is not and never can be.

Now let’s look at the female military pilot.

Does she develop her masculine essence in order to follow structure, regimented discipline and purpose as she goes through flying training or do the women who apply to join as pilots already possess these before they start?

Neurologically, women and men’s brains are very similar, there are differences but they are outweighed by the similarities.

Interestingly, autism affects more men than women and in England; 1.8% of men fall somewhere on the autistic spectrum compared to just 0.2% of women. The reason I mention this is that people with autism are very strong at systemising and ‘are strongly drawn to structured, factual and rule-based information’ and show extreme attention to detail. These are the traits of the male brain which explains why people with autism are mainly male themselves.

When I read the recipe card with my wife, my formulaic brain said, ‘this is a checklist, it is structured, factual and rule based’ and her inspired brain said, ‘this is a guide which will help me create magical food using glitter and unicorns.’

(She told me to write that she never said ‘glitter and unicorns’…)

In my experience, women do not do as well as men during fast jet flying training, my judgement is subjective, of course. Also, I am open to the fact that the numbers of women in fast jet flying training are very small in comparison to their male counterparts so, in percentage terms, they lose more heavily. We’ve seen that the male and female brains are not dissimilar but they are not identical either and the evidence for differing cognitive ability is patchy at best. Experiments have determined that there is little or no difference between male and female performances in verbal and numerical tests. Studies do show, however, that men and women do use different parts of the brain to complete them.

But gender also determines how we express ourselves and I remember having to brief one of my female students to be more forceful with her formation when planning and flying the sortie.

Leadership in the air starts on the ground and, in her particular phase of the course, there was a 2 hour planning window prior to each sortie. If she wasn’t able to control the people she was flying with then she wouldn’t make it to the end of the course. As instructors we can play the idiot sometimes and, during the plan, if the student isn’t controlling their team properly, one of us will offer to make some teas and coffees and then just not come back. The student is then a pilot down for the plan. Well, they should have told us to come back after we’d made the drinks, we said that we were going to make tea and coffee, not that we were going to bring them back to the planning room!

This can be frustrating for the students but they soon learn to leave nothing to chance which, as a pilot, is a really good policy to have.

To assume makes and ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me.

Vertical Ambition

Recently the chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, Kevin Roberts, resigned after he made sexist comments about women’s lack of ambition at work. His real mistake was using the word ‘women’ instead of ‘people’ for the truth is that both men and women lack vertical ambition in today’s workplace.

‘So we are trying to impose our antiquated shit on them, and they are going, ’Actually guys, you’re missing the point, you don’t understand – I’m way happier than you.’ Their ambition is not a vertical ambition, it’s this intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy. So they say, ‘We are not judging ourselves by those standards that you idiotic dinosaur-like men judge yourself by.’ I don’t think (the lack of women in leadership roles) is a problem. I’m just not worried about it because they are very happy, they’re very successful, and doing great work.’ – Kevin Roberts, ex-Saatchi & Saatchi Chairman

In the military, women are paid the same as men but they fall behind in their careers if they take maternity leave. This might not seem right but it is to be expected. If there were two people in the office and one returns after 6 months leave, would you not expect the one who remained at work to be more knowledgeable, current and valuable to the organisation than the other?

Let’s say Tom and Tina work in the same office and Tina leaves for 6 months to start a family. In those 6 months, Tom carries on working, becomes more proficient, educated and capable in his role and then Tina returns. Who, to the organisation, is worth more at this time? Research would suggest that mothers are exceptionally valuable to organisations but, if you had to send one of the two to close a high profile deal with a client the next week, who do you send?

Yes, it would be Tom, we’d all send Tom – not because he’s a man but because he has been with the company more recently. If you have any doubt as to whether you’d send Tom, let’s pretend Tom is now a woman called Theresa, would you now feel any differently?

This isn’t sexism or gender inequality but just common sense but it probably does detract from a woman’s feeling of self-worth in business. At some point she knows that she will have to take time off if she wants to start a family and this will, undoubtably, slow her career progression. With this in mind, many women admit to not pushing as hard as they probably should have when they first started working as they know this time will eventually come.

Some women look for employment that allows for lateral movement, the variety of which offers a different kind of fulfilment. These jobs can have more meaning for them as they take a career break due to having children.

‘On a ladder, most climbers are stuck staring at the butt of the person above.’ – Sheryl Sandberg

When I fly air combat against a woman, I don’t see a woman in the cockpit, I just see a pilot trying to kill me.

I don’t look at the person, I look at the capability.

‘When they realised I was competent, I was quickly accepted.’ – Col Jeannie Levitt, Flight Wing Cdr, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base

But, in many industries, the glass ceiling is still there for all to see but is it put there by men or by society’s expectation for the woman to be the primary care giver?

As much as Sheryl Sandberg will tell women to ‘lean in’, the glass ceiling has yet to be cracked and there is still a 16% gender pay gap. Britain has the longest working hours in Europe and it is hard for women to excel as society still expects them to look after the children.

And women suffer from confidence issues too and often feel like an imposter, deflecting their own praise onto that of their male colleagues.

They are worried they might come across as too ambitious as they know that there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance.

‘There are still days I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.’ – Sheryl Sandberg

Men negotiate salary increases four times as often as women and women believe they deserve 20% less in salary terms.

Many who see a man in a position of authority will describe him as the ‘boss’ but will see a woman in a similar role and describe her as ‘bossy’. A man working late is ‘dedicated’, a woman doing the same, ’selfish’.

When Hewlett-Packard were looking at how to get more women into management positions they studied personnel records and found that women at the company only applied for promotion when they believed they met 100% of the qualifications listed for the job. Men, however, would apply when they had met only 60% of the requirements. Under-qualified and inexperienced men wouldn’t think twice about ‘leaning in’ – women only do so when they feel completely assured of their credibility for the role.

‘In this years’ Olympics 45% of the athletes are women but only 1 in 5 reporters at the games are.’

I’ve lost count at the number of times I’ve walked into a meeting of very senior minds to see all of the chairs around the outside of the room occupied by women leaving empty chairs around the table that they are expecting to be filled by men. I’ve even said on occasions, ‘Sit at the table, get in there before the guys do!’

‘We need to keep changing the attitude that raises our girls to be demure and our boys to be assertive, that criticizes our daughters for speaking out and our sons for shedding a tear. We need to keep changing the attitude that punishes women for their sexuality and rewards men for theirs.’ – Barack Obama

But confidence issues do also effect men but just not to the same degree and often its because people just don’t want the top jobs anymore.

‘When we offer women promotion women say they don’t want to manage a piece of business, they just want to do the job.’ – Unnamed CEO interviewed on Radio 4

The sad thing about Kevin Roberts resigning is that the argument was unfortunately allowed to be aligned along the lines of another example of repression of a ‘woman’s’ ambition in the workplace when the real discussion should have been about what ‘people’ really want to do.

But the current corporate structure is failing both men and women and both want better balance, to be more flexible and to spend more time with the family. It’s been proven that flexitime can enhance productivity.

I know Group Captains that won’t promote to Air Commodore because, if they do, they have to promote into a ‘position’ in the next rank and that means that they’ve just entered the ‘up or out’ air force, and as the Americans know in their USAF, this isn’t very much liked. Isn’t it better to stay in a rank that you are comfortable in and wait until you can access the full pension at 55?

The NHS has huge issues finding senior managers to fill the top posts which combine public scrutiny with tough financial targets that have to be achieved. Why would anyone want to promote into that level of responsibility when the jobs they are already doing pay reasonable money and they have already demonstrated competency in?

Remember, as a society we promote up into incompetence at least in the immediacy and this can be unsettling for many.

In the RAF, promotion isn’t what it once was. For the first time since the 1940s the Service is actually growing and we have some incredible equipment coming online but, with the recent pension changes, budget cuts, escalating Service housing costs, reduced opportunities for adventure training and an ever-increasing workload due to manning issues it is not surprising that most of my pilots aren’t interested in promoting into command opportunities.

And as someone who flies for part of the month and is in an office for the remainder, I can tell you that the higher up you go, the more meetings you get involved with. I am not a huge fan of meetings as many of you know. If you are talking about it then you aren’t actually doing it and, personally, I guess I am a hands on kind of person.

‘Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.’ – John Kenneth Galbraith


I am left believing that the solution may not just lie in a continuing attempt to force gender equality into the workplace but by recognising that the workplace itself probably has to change.

The year is 2016 and if a schoolboy in Brazil can ask me a question and get an instantaneous answer then surely I don’t need to drive half-way across the UK to sit in a 2 hour meeting where I only have a 5 minute speaking part?

I look after the engineering modification requirements for five RAF aircraft and this means that I have five lots of the same meetings for each one. You can imagine how disruptive my day can be being pulled from pillar to post which is why it’s often best to physically not be there; it’s the only way to get any work done sometimes.

But there is this feeling that we should actually still be in a physical workplace at that we should desire promotion above all else. This often comes from the men at the top of an organisation and, traditionally, men who were required themselves to be physically in the office and thrust ever upwards when they were starting out. I am left wondering whether, if men were to embrace a truly flexible and horizontal working culture, would this not encourage women to do the same?

But there we go, men deciding what is right for women; we’ve come full circle.

So let’s agree that there is no panacea but that what is needed is to help each other irrespective of our gender. We need to try and re-humanise with each other just as ‘people’ who are on the same journey.

And yes, maybe teaching women how to fly fast jets should be done differently. And we should agree that this isn’t a sexist or misogynistic thing to openly discuss and that, gender specific training, might make a woman a better and more capable pilot. We should admit that a woman taking a break from her career to have kids will set her back and not pretend it isn’t true. Instead, we should be looking at opportunities to embrace the change that a returning mother now offers her working environment.

And what happens when the traditional business construct is demanding one thing of people and the people are doing something else? The prioritising of a happy life over one of financial prosperity may just have to become a discussion point in corporate boardrooms across the world.

But I also think we should just accept less ‘perfection’ in our lives.

Let us all try to be less professional but more authentic with each other. The Japanese call this Wabi-Sabi or ‘the acceptance of imperfection’.

‘Pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry.’ -Leonard Koren, ‘Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers’

Genuinely good pilots, and we have many in the military, are not afraid to show their imperfections because imperfections are ‘real’ and people respond to ‘real’. It makes us safer and allows us to ask soul-searching questions that give true and meaningful answers.

Maybe, as a combined ‘tribe of people’ and not just men or women, we are finding out that there is a way to be content and it’s not found in the endless struggle to ascend to the next position on the corporate ladder. We should try to take a step back and say ‘I have enough, I just need to look at what I have and appreciate it for what it is.’

It is not and never has been up to men to ‘empower’ women or to ‘allow’ women equality in the workplace; the workplace is not owned by men but by people. When everybody is treated equally it makes all of us more free.

Whether we are men or women we should recognise that empathy and caring for other people are not just feminine patterns, they are human conditions.

So, there might be those who still scoff at the creative fullness of the fairer sex who seemingly prefer ‘glitter and unicorns’ over checklists and structures. But we can all understand and learn from a woman’s frustration at having to comply with a patriarchal and hierarchal construct which favours antiquated working practises that are seemingly making us all unhappy.

Women, they cry.

We should listen to them more.

Read More

Get notified of new posts