International Women’s Day is the perfect opportunity to highlight the role of women in the Armed Forces and the wider contribution they make, including in their post-military careers.
The OA meets women who were distinguished officers, and then have built successful careers in civilian life. In the Armed Forces they demonstrated the highest standards of leadership and resilience, often in challenging situations. They have then used these inherent skills to help businesses grow and build stronger networks.
Leading from the Start
The recent appointment of Air Marshal Sue Gray, as the first ever female three-star officer in the Armed Forces, would have been unimaginable 60 years ago. However, women such as Colonel Audrey Smith, now in her eighties, helped to pave the way.
Women had very limited roles in the Armed Forces for most of Audrey’s military career. Audrey refused to let superstitions or rigid belief systems thwart her career. In 1962, when she left the WRAC Training Centre, Audrey said: “I’m not coming back here unless I’m the Commandant.” She returned in 1984 as the Colonel Commandant of the Centre.
From 1967-69, Audrey was posted to Singapore as the first non medical female officer. She served for two years as a Major in Cyprus, before becoming one of the first female officers to attend the National Defence College in Latimer. Audrey was also the first female British Army Officer to serve in Rome at the NATO Defence College, prior to taking up a post at the NATO HQ in Brussels.
As well as developing her own career, Audrey pushed to improve opportunities for other women in the Armed Forces. She played a leading role in the debate on whether or not women should be armed and trained in combat, achieving an agreement for female Provosts to be armed when accompanying their male armed counterparts in the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) in the 1980s.
Many of the issues Audrey championed only led to changes after she left the Armed Forces. In July 2016, the ban on women serving in close combat ground roles was lifted. For the first time, women in the British Armed Forces can fulfil close combat roles. Audrey said: “Not all women necessarily want to fight in the infantry, just as not all men want to fight in the infantry, but it’s important that the opportunity is there if they want to.”
Promoting Gender Equality
Vix Anderton left the RAF in 2014 and now enjoys a portfolio career, while also championing women’s rights.
She contacted the OA in 2010 and had a one-to-one career consultation. Vix said: “The OA really helped me to understand my career options. I felt more confident in my decisions, knowing I could ask for advice.”
After leaving the RAF, Vix completed a two-month internship in the BBC High Risk Team, followed by a research fellowship at the Royal United Services Institute. Vix decided she wanted to work in international development, and successfully applied to the International Citizenship Scheme with the Voluntary Service Overseas.
She spent six months in Bangladesh where her leadership experience developed in the RAF proved invaluable. After the programme finished, Vix worked in a couple of freelance roles, before becoming Head of Programmes for Social Development Direct (SDDirect) in London, a leading provider of social development assistance and research services.
Vix was responsible for its global portfolio of projects and provided operational support, including risk and security management. In 2017 Vix started a portfolio career, which included launching a start-up to transform the mental health of women and girls.
Vix said: “When I left the RAF, I never imagined I would work in gender equality and mental health, or become an entrepreneur. It’s been a real adventure since leaving the RAF; it’s not always been smooth or easy, but I have loved every minute of it.”
From the sea to Amazon
Gillian Russell is Military Program Manager at Amazon EU and a former Royal Navy Logistics officer. In addition to developing this new career, Gillian’s role involves attracting military talent, which helps other female officers in their transition journeys.
Gillian said: “We actively recruit veterans at Amazon because we know how great they are for our business. We recognise that the skills you get wen you are serving are very transferrable into Amazon’s operational environment.”