Choose to Challenge: Women of the Defence Academy
The Defence Academy of the United Kingdom is acknowledging individuals in our community who are redefining norms to mark this year’s International Women’s Day.
Come on a journey with us to discover the accomplishments of these women as they explain their joys and challenges of working in a predominately male world.
This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is Choose to Challenge.
Wing Commander Leonie Boyd (Shrivenham Station Commander)
Wing Commander Boyd is the first female Station Commander of the Defence Academy, Shrivenham.
Believe in yourself, get on with your job and don’t measure yourself against others.
In many ways, I suppose I have always chosen to challenge stereotypical expectations, by my choice of both studies and subsequent work. As a result, I spent most of my adult life in predominantly male dominated environments, undertaking roles that have, at least historically, been considered male.
For example, while studying aeronautical engineering at the University of Glasgow, I was one of only a handful of women on the course. During my RAF engineering officer training, I was the only female on my course. My subsequent roles in RAF engineering were, unsurprisingly, generally male dominated environments and, while challenging at times, were always extremely satisfying and enjoyable jobs.
I especially liked working in front-line squadron roles, as the junior or senior engineering officer on platforms such as the Hercules K or J models, and the Tristar aircraft, where I could really apply my technical training. Success would mean we launched the aircraft on time (not always a simple feat, as some military colleagues will know!)
The number of female engineers has risen significantly in my time (and continues to) and I’m pleased that so many others will have the opportunity to experience a rewarding career. I’m aware that women are in the RAF as a result of others before us choosing to challenge too. And, I’m proud that the RAF is leading the way with the most senior female officer ever to serve in the British Armed Forces being Air Marshal Sue Gray, Director General Defence Safety Authority, an RAF engineer.
The very nature of service roles - and, let’s be honest, not many of them are just ‘9-to-5’ jobs - make it challenging to balance work alongside childcare or other wider responsibilities. While my husband (an RAF pilot) is away on operations, my children ask me why I have to work at the weekend, or why I can’t pick them up from school like ‘everyone else’. That can be difficult to deal with.
While I never experienced serious discrimination in my career, I have certainly experienced sub-threshold incidents that can make you feel like you are wasting your time and wear you down. For example, sitting in a meeting with people speaking over me as if I’m not there, who make a point I made earlier in the meeting … but it’s heralded as a great idea. Or, being asked to do the writing on the whiteboard, because my handwriting must be neater. In most cases, I don’t think it’s deliberate; most don’t realise they are doing it. But it can erode your confidence when it happens on a regular basis.
I have been very lucky to work with some exemplary officers who have assisted me throughout my career. They demonstrated that it is possible to be there for your family while being career-driven, and supported and mentored me so that I believe in myself and my abilities.
In November 2020, I was appointed as Station Commander Shrivenham. I love the breadth of this role. It is the most challenging, yet rewarding, I have ever undertaken simply due to the variety of work I deal with on a daily basis. No day is ever the same and the hours and days fly by - from estate management, project management, security, health and safety, and risk management with my head of establishment ‘hat’ on, to welfare and discipline issues as commanding officer. There is also the outward-facing station commander role and engagement with the community, schools and councils.
From your experiences, do you have advice for others? From personal experience, I know that people will respond positively, work harder for you and want to be part of the team if you make them feel valued and appreciated. I’ve learnt many lessons, both positive and negative, from those I have worked with and for, but I am also a strong believer in being yourself and simply getting on with your job. If you spend time measuring yourself against others, you have lost valuable time to contribute and ultimately make things better for those around you, and following you.
What does Choose to Challenge mean to you? I’m grateful to those who have chosen to challenge before me as they have paved the way. It is only by continuing to ‘choose to challenge’ where things are wrong, or can be improved, that we will bring about a better lived experience for all. I don’t just mean in the sense of unacceptable behaviours either, but also in changing processes or structures to ensure we conduct business in the most efficient and effective manner possible: every small action can make a difference and, ultimately, lead to a better future - something I want wholeheartedly for my son and daughter.
Officer Cadet Ellie Wheatley (Typhoon Squadron, DTUS)
Officer Cadet Wheatley is studying Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Loughborough University, before joining the Royal Navy.
Have confidence in your own ability.
I was born in, and still live in, Cornwall. Both my parents were in the Royal Navy and my mum is still serving, at RNAS Culdrose, so the Navy has always been a dinnertime conversation.
At school I always enjoyed Maths, Physics and also PE: I was very active. When it came to choosing a sixth-form college I heard about Welbeck and it seemed perfect. It offered STEM A-level subjects, the military aspect and a bursary for university.
I am now in my second year at Loughborough. My course is challenging but I’m enjoying it. Once I’ve graduated and been through officer training at Dartmouth, I hope to specialise in aero-engineering. I want to work on fast jets or helicopters and eventually, become a chartered engineer.
Typhoon Squadron students meet virtually every Thursday evening for talks and presentations. In normal times, we would go on visits and exercises but these are suspended because of Covid.
At university, engineering is male dominated and I have been the only female in two team projects. I found that I really have to justify my points when we are discussing the project, or I am talked over when I’m trying to make a point. I think it is subconscious… they’re not aware they are doing it. But I’ve spoken to other female students and they have noticed the same.
Who has influenced or inspired you? My mum has always been my role model. She is ridiculously hard working. She is in a leadership position in a male-dominated area. Her work has proven that she should be where she is, independent of her gender.
From your experiences, do you have advice for others? Have confidence in your own ability. You are in your position for a reason, so use that to show that you belong there.
What does Choose to Challenge mean to you? This means fighting the subconscious decisions that people might make. Because the military and engineering are both predominately male, I would like to ensure that women are given the same chances as men for those roles.
Warrant Officer (RAF) Nicci Burdett (Shrivenham Station, Joint Service Administration Unit)
Warrant Officer Burdett works in the Joint Service Administration Unit at the Defence Academy.
Take every opportunity that you’re offered.
When I was eight years old, I saw a Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) mannequin in a bunker at the RAF Museum. She looked so poised and confident that I thought, ‘I want to be like that’! I wrote to an RAF recruiting office when I was 13, but they replied that I was a bit young to join up. I still have that letter!
Eventually, I joined the RAF in 1995 as an administrator and was posted to RAF Marham, among other bases. At Marham, I was awarded a commendation for arranging royal visits, homecoming parades and service funerals. After numerous deployments around the world, today I manage the 15-person Joint Service Administration Unit (JSAU) at Shrivenham, administering the pay and benefits of all UK military staff assigned to the Defence Academy.
One reason I joined the RAF was to travel and never stay in the same place too long. I still stand by that but have found it has become more challenging as I got older and had more family responsibilities.
Women are still traditionally perceived as the primary care providers. Normally, the mum will be called first if a child is sick at school for example. Whilst of course I want to know if my son is poorly, that some people still assume that the male is the bread-winner and mums are responsible for the caring responsibilities is incredibly irritating.
Once, when we moved into new accommodation, all conversation was directed to my husband because it was assumed he was the one in the military. He quickly corrected them, “you need to speak to the boss.” But the point is, don’t make those assumptions. Just ask – you’ll get a better response than if you assume incorrectly.
From your experiences, do you have advice for others? One piece of advice is to take every opportunity that you’re offered – all experiences, even the worst ones, help you to grow. Another is that you don’t have to behave like a macho bloke to get on; in my younger days, I tried that but realised I wasn’t being authentic to myself. The boys’ club mentality is changing as more people are recognising that women bring cognitive diversity that you just don’t get by closing the doors to us.
What does Choose to Challenge mean to you? It is about having the ability to challenge appropriately. I have often been addressed in emails as a male, rather than as a female. It was assumed I was a man solely because of my rank. I used to worry what to do about it, but now I just say it straight! Language matters… not everyone in the military is male. Recently, the first female 3-star in the RAF was appointed and that was big news. But I look forward to the day when actually it doesn’t matter, because it is normal.
Staff Sergeant Julie Murray (Technical Instructor, Defence Cyber School)
Staff Segeant Murray works in the Defence Cyber School at Shrivenham.
Defence is a woman’s world, too.
I joined the Army in 1997 and spent 13 years as a telecommunications operator-telegraphist in the Royal Corps of Signals. I had a fantastic time travelling the world, skydiving, skiing, orienteering: a really great career. I deployed to Kosovo, Macedonia, Iraq. I’ve taken part in exercises in Morocco, Canada, Kenya and Portugal.
Unfortunately, I did experience some negativity when previously married to a serviceman. After returning to work from maternity leave, I employed a nanny to allow me to re-commit to the service and was given the nickname “Bad Mother Tucker” (my married name at the time was Tucker). I worked in a troop with frequent periods away from home. The guilt of putting my children second influenced my decision to transfer units, to allow for some stability for my girls.
I heard about opportunities at the Defence School of Languages, Beaconsfield. I took an 18-month language course, followed by a six-month applied phase, so I had two-plus years guaranteed with the children. I also specialised in cyber, teaching at Chicksands for two years which set me up well for my current role in the Defence Cyber School at the Defence Academy.
Defence is a woman’s world, too. We have come a long way and the military is now more accessible to women. I am so pleased things are changing for the better. I have enjoyed my career and even the challenges I’ve experienced have made me the resilient person I am today.
Who has influenced or inspired you? Lieutenent Commander Rachel Smallwood for her work to champion neurodiversity in the workplace. I try to continue her good work and increase awareness wherever I can.
From your experiences, do you have advice for others? Be kind, patient, inclusive and respect trainees. They are the future so be a good role model. What you teach them now will remain throughout their careers and will influence how they lead others in the future.
What does Choose to Challenge mean to you? To call out unacceptable behaviour. Be brave and know that if you have genuine concern about someone’s behaviour, you are probably not the only person to think it is unacceptable. You can be the catalyst for change, so be strong.