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No glass ceiling for female officers

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'We need the best and the brightest talent in senior positions', said Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, in response to the promotion of Elaine West to air vice marshal. She is the first woman in the Royal Air Force (RAF) to attain 2-star rank. 'There are no glass ceilings for female officers', Hammond said. If that claim is true today, it was not so for earlier generations whose careers were curtailed or limited by overt and covert barriers.

Elaine West is a married officer with a teenage son. She joined the RAF in the junior ranks in 1978 and quickly went on to become an officer. She was an administrator, the specialism that has traditionally employed the most female officers.

Elaine West's brief biographical details show us how much has changed since the introduction of voluntary peacetime service for women following the Second World War. During discussions of proposed terms of service for servicewomen in 1946, the head of the Women's Royal Naval Service Commandant Jocelyn Woollcombe predicted that military careers would be 'almost inevitably [for] single women or at any rate women without families'.

A question early on was whether married women would be allowed to serve, as they had during the Second World War. Air Commandant Felicity Hanbury, the senior female officer 1946-50, argued successfully that having some married women in the RAF would be useful as a source of guidance to young airwomen working and living in a predominantly male environment. They would also increase the pool of women available for promotion to senior ranks.

However, regulations that made combining marriage and an RAF career problematic for women were less acceptable in peacetime than in war. For example, women could not always work on the same units as serving husbands. If there was RAF housing, and there were serious shortages, home was where the husband served. A woman could not hold the tenancy of an RAF house and, if she was married to a civilian she was not entitled to any assistance with housing. This regulation remained until 1979 when it was scrapped in response to the Sex Discrimination Act (1975).

Married women's service was undermined by a regulation that allowed those who married while in the RAF to leave at shorter notice than men or single women. Successive Directors of the WRAF argued that this regulation was necessary for recruitment as young women would not want to feel tied to long contracts. The RAF only withdrew this privilege in 1994 to come into line with practice in the navy and the army.

The key obstacle to long careers was the policy of dismissing pregnant women. Policymakers and senior female officers in each of the armed forces opposed the introduction of maternity leave. A mother's duty to her family was seen as incompatible with the demands of service life. This policy persisted until 1990 when it fell to legal pressure brought about by disgruntled women who had been forced out of the Services. Supported by the Equal Opportunities Commission, they brought a legal case against the Ministry of Defence (MOD). Advised that the women would win their case, the MOD conceded. From October 1990, servicewomen could claim unpaid maternity leave. Under further legal pressure, paid leave was introduced in December 1991.

In addition to marriage and pregnancy regulations that resulted in women's careers being curtailed, there was the hidden barrier of women being treated as non-combatants. This was used to cap the number of women who could join the RAF. Importantly, it was also used to exclude women from the most important command appointments associated with their specialisation - not because they could not do the primary tasks of the job, but because they could not undertake the war role. Thus, an administrative officer reaching the rank of wing commander would aspire to command an admin wing on an operational station. Typically, the postholder would be required to take charge of the defence of the station in the event of war. Being regarded as non-combatants until weapons training was introduced in 1982, female officers were excluded from these career critical appointments.

From 1949 to 1990, the RAF promoted 14 women to the 1-star rank of air commodore (or its equivalent of air commandant prior to 1968). Of these, 12 were promoted to the rank in a competition restricted to female officers. They were ineligible for promotion beyond this rank and could only fill the post of head of the WRAF. Only two women were promoted to air commodore rank in competition with men: Bridget Martin, an administrator, and Joan Hopkins, a fighter control specialist. Having been promoted in the standard way, as opposed to becoming head of the WRAF, these women were eligible for jobs in their specialism and general posts open to all officers of this rank. They could have been in the running for further promotion.

When maternity leave was introduced, Ruth Montague was the only air commodore. She was the last head of the WRAF, the post being disestablished in 1994. The next highest ranking woman was Group Captain Cynthia Fowler, an administrator. She went on to become the third air commodore promoted in competition with male officers. Below her were 18 wing commanders.

Introduction of weapons training, the end of dismissal on pregnancy and the removal of the right to leave on marriage for those who had joined as single women, all paved the way to longer and better careers for female officers. So much so that in 2011, there were five air commodores, 20 group captains and 90 wing commanders.

Making the step up from air commodore to air vice marshal, as Elaine West has done, is particularly difficult for officers who have made their careers in support rather than in flying roles, as some of the top jobs require flying experience. In 2012 there were two air chief marshals, seven air marshals and 23 air vice marshals. Of these 32 posts, four were for the professional branches of the medical, chaplaincy and legal services. Of the 28 open to the flying and support branches of the RAF, 18 were filled by aircrew.

Women were not admitted as pilots and navigators, as weapons' systems officers were called, until 1989. By 2007, approximately 2.5% of pilots were female and 6% of weapons' systems officers. In 2011, the highest ranking female flyer was a wing commander.

Philip Hammond and Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford may well be congratulating themselves on this first female 2-star officer. Certainly female officers' prospects are considerably better following changes in the 1980s and early 1990s. However, at the elite level of the air marshal ranks, aircrew specialists will continue to dominate whatever the talents of those male and female officers who serve in the support branches. With the first female air vice marshal from the flying branch still a long way off, for the time being, women can compete only for posts open to support branches. Elaine West's achievement is a rare event for women in the RAF.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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