Mandy Hickson’s Lessons Learned From Working in a Male Dominated Industry
Mandy Hickson was one of the first female pilots on a front line Tornado GR4 squadron. Flying fast jets for the Royal Air Force, she worked in constantly challenging and hostile environments. This included patrolling the ‘No Fly’ zone over Iraq and carrying the latest weaponry, her unit ready to drop ordnance on any target in support of operations.
Mandy’s journey wasn’t simple but the challenges she faced makes her story even more incredible. She now uses the lessons she’s learned to inspire others as a regular speaker on Safety, Human Factors and Culture Change at conferences across a range of industries.
In order to find out more about the obstacles she had to overcome in order to be so successful in a male dominated field, read our interview below:
What was your journey to becoming one of the first female pilots on a front-line Tornado GR4 squadron?
“The first inkling I had that I would like to be a pilot was when I was thirteen. My mum shared a newspaper article about the local RAF Air Training Corps that was taking girls for the first time. It was on the same night as my favourite TV programme – Magnum PI – so it was out of the question. Mum said they did canoeing. “You like canoeing,” she coaxed. She then pointed out that I went to an all-girls school and this could be my only opportunity to meet boys. I joined the next week!
It was there I had my first flight in an aircraft, a chipmunk, and that’s when I set my sights on a career as a jet pilot. There were some fairly large obstacles in my way. Women were not allowed to be fast jet pilots in the RAF at that time and when they did open the doors to women, I failed all the aptitude tests.
I was devastated. You can only sit these tests twice and when I retook them, I failed again.
Fortunately, by then I had joined the University Air Squadron. I had approximately two-hundred hours of flying under my belt and had won acrobatics competitions. The Squadron Commander believed I had the potential to make it to the front line. He requested that two impartial flying examiners assess me. They both graded me as above average. Eventually, I persuaded the RAF to take me on – they couldn’t understand why so many women were failing the tests compared to their male counterparts and wanted to check system bias.”
Is there someone in history or someone you know that has inspired to you to achieve what you have?
“Very close to home – my mum. We grew up in a single parent household. She always told us that we could achieve whatever we set our sights on. My sister is now a Medical Director of a hospice and has overcome many obstacles to also achieve her dreams. I went on to become the second woman to fly Tornado GR4’s on the front line. My mum was obviously doing something right!”
What was it like working in challenging environments?
“Remaining calm under pressure is incredibly important as a pilot. Panic can be fatal. All emergencies are practiced time and time again in the simulator so that when something does go wrong you are almost acting on autopilot.
On the night I led my first ever combat mission over Iraq we were engaged by an enemy surface-to-air missile. It was very close but I evaded it by instinctively performing a manoeuvre we had practised hundreds of times. That practice saved my life. I enjoyed the challenge that this environment provided and the satisfaction of being part of such a high-performing team.”
What is it like to work in an industry dominated by men?
“For me, it was the norm. I didn’t dwell on it too much at the time, but a few weeks ago I was invited to “100 Years of Women at War”. It was an incredible celebration, and as I looked around the 1000 women I suddenly realised that I only knew one other person. It suddenly dawned on me, this was because I never actually worked with any other women during my entire service career.”
Do you think there is more that can be done to empower women to get into male-dominated industries, if so what?
“Today I’m a motivational business coach and I also visit schools regularly, talking to girls (and boys), trying to inspire them to overcome all sorts of barriers. I say: “If I can do it, so can you.” I don’t believe it should make women back away from industries, just because of their gender…”
If the career is for you – Just go for it!
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