Women Breaking Barriers in the Royal Air Force

Posted on Fri, April 13, 2018

Tracy Bedwell joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1986; the daughter of a Royal Navy veteran, she thought that service in the air force offered more opportunities for women in the military. When Bedwell enlisted, however, she was actually joining the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF), a separate women’s branch of the RAF, in operation from 1918 to 1920 and 1949 to 1994 (with the World War II-era Women’s Auxiliary Air Force forming in-between).

Bedwell—now an information support officer and crypto custodian at the British Embassy Washington—landed in telecommunications after taking an aptitude test, which she notes had roles open to both genders.

“The barriers are broken down, the way is paved. People just need to tread it.”

The main difference between the WRAF and RAF, she said, was the pay.

“There was quite a big pay gap between men and women,” Bedwell said. “We did the same work, but were paid differently.”

When she first enlisted, some base assignments were “unavailable” to women, because of their remoteness or lack of separate accommodations for men and women. During Bedwell’s career with the RAF, things began to change. She later became the first single female on the Canadian Forces Base Goose Bay, a remote location that had previously been all male.

“I’ve never felt I wasn’t listened to as a woman in the RAF,” Bedwell said. “I did my job as well, or better, than the men.” With a laugh, she joked, “And there are so many blokes out there who can hardly lift a pen!”

A few years before Bedwell left military service in 1998, the WRAF merged with the RAF, and more opportunities for women emerged.

By the time Flt. Lt. Sarah Cole joined the RAF in 2007—straight out of school and on her way to becoming a 2nd lieutenant pilot officer at age 19—she was training and stationed alongside men.

Royal Air Force Flt. Lt. Sarah Cole sharing a love of rugby with members of the United States Air Force in Afghanistan. Credit: Sarah Cole

“That’s where you break down perceptions, by being integrated,” she said.

For example, in her training group there were about four or five women for every 30 men. But the recruits were broken into “streams,” ranked A through D, based on the speed they could run. Men and women were mixed across the categories.

Since her early training days, Cole’s work in the RAF has brought her to Germany, serving with NATO, to three locations in the Middle East, and on two tours in Afghanistan. On some of those trips, she was one of a handful of women officers, working alongside dozens of men. By then, even things like sleeping quarters had been integrated—separate for individuals, but designated by rank not by gender.

“The best way to change perceptions is to perform,” Cole added.

Since the RAF’s founding, women have been doing just that. And as of 2017, the RAF is fully integrated, opening up combat roles to women for the first time.

“The barriers are broken down, the way is paved,” Cole said. “People just need to tread it.”

Hear from Flt. Lt. Sarah Cole, alongside other RAF pilots and Museum curators, at The Great British Fly-In on April 15 at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. 

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