Stay on the treadmill of change, Jo Salter tells women in IT

First British female fighter pilot shares her struggle in male-dominated RAF before moving to IT sector

When on the “treadmill of change, if you get off they’ll say you couldn’t do it”, the first British frontline female fast jet pilot told women in technology at an everywoman in Technology Leadership Academy recently.

Taking place at Deloitte’s London offices, the academy brought together more than 100 women who work in IT to hear from inspirational speakers such as flight lieutenant Jo Salter, who was present to share her experiences of being a female in a male-dominated industry.

“Trying to initiate change, you have to keep a sense of humour and shake things off, or you will burn yourself out. It doesn’t mean that certain behaviour is okay, but there are certain ways to deal with things,” she told attendees.

“It doesn’t matter if I can do it, or if I’m ready, or if women are ready – they [the men] weren’t ready for it. But I wasn’t crying,” she said.

Salter explained that when she was young she wanted to be a hairdresser at first. “Then I wanted to be an accountant and go to university and study accountancy. Then a careers bus arrived at school and the woman on there said if I took engineering I could do anything.”

As a result, she joined the Royal Airforce (RAF) at 18 under an engineering cadetship scheme, at a time when women were not allowed to be RAF pilots. She studied electronic systems engineering at the Royal Military College of Science.

Initiating change in male-dominated industries

When starting her career, Salter was told she didn't look much like a fighter pilot. “When I ask, 'What do you think someone in my job should look like?' they think of an Olympic shot putter. ‘I didn’t think you’d be so small,' they say! Does my size matter? It’s my brain that’s operating a machine,” said Salter.

She explained the training process she had to go through, and having to face several male instructors who were not ready nor yet convinced that females could become RAF pilots.

On the course, men were only given two extra hours of time to train whereas women were allocated far more, said Salter. “This was creating an unfair environment. The first time I took my exams I failed and the instructor walked off. The second instructor said he would’ve passed me though. He gave me the hope and self-belief I needed,” she said.

“I wasn’t good enough at that time, but he gave me enough to push me through and I never failed another flight test again.”

Salter was eventually told she could be an instructor on the Hawk, but “not on the front line” and was advised “not to cause trouble”. 

In 1989, the government announced that women would be allowed to start flying multi-engine aircraft and search and rescue helicopters. In 1991, the decision was made for women to be allowed to fly fast jets, initially only as instructors and then, in 1992, on the front line.

Salter was awarded her wings in 1992 and was posted with 617 Squadron, the Dambusters. After training as a combat-ready pilot, she became the first woman to fly the Tornado GR1 in 1995.

However, when trying to join a Tornado squadron, Salter was faced with more challenges over her gender. “After trying eight Tornado squadrons, seven said no and one said yes, to encourage diversity. Once there, I was told, ‘I’ll never fly with a woman and I want you to know we don’t want you here and will do whatever to get rid of you’.”

Salter remembers the headlines when the first British female fighter pilot fell pregnant: Millions of pounds of training and what does she go and do? Get pregnant. The audacity of it! “They forgot all the years of work in between,” she said.

In 1999, Salter completed her MBA in business administration, and later landed herself an associate lecturer’s role with the Open University.

Not content with paving the way for females in one male-dominated industry, she left the RAF in 1999 to join an IT infrastructure company as head of technical services. She later became a European operations manager at an online trading exchange where she introduced new software in Norway and the UK.

In closing, she advised: “I’d encourage my daughters to be whatever they want to be and I’d add self-esteem and resilience in there too.”

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