RAF pilot turned author and motivational speaker

Mandy Hickson reflects on her experience as a woman in the military and talks about mental wellbeing and gender equality, topics that she feels passionately about, and about how businesses can create a work-life balance for their employees.

Mandy Hickson RAF Pilot


Mandy Hickson is a pioneering female pilot turned motivational speaker and business navigating consultant. As only the second female to fly a Tornado GR4 on the front line, Hickson pioneered the movement of women into the RAF. Much of her career was spent as the only female aircrew, throughout 45 missions over Iraq and three duty tours. One of her positions as the Squadron’s Combat Survival and Rescue Officer saw Hickson spearhead a cross-continent effort in the height of risk management. Since becoming a civilian, Hickson has continued to work as a Volunteer Reserve on the Air Experience Flight with Air Cadets. In addition to her public speaking role, she has recently published book An Officer, Not a Gentleman  about her journey as a woman in a male-dominated profession and how she developed the necessary mental and physical skills to handle the fast-paced life of a pilot and mother. She spoke to Megan Lupton of the Champion Speakers Agency.

Megan Lupton: What advice do you have for women in male-dominated environments?

Mandy Hickson: I think one of the first things I’d like to say is… be yourself. There’s a real difference between belonging and fitting in. When I first joined the military, especially when I first arrived at my frontline squadron, I just tried to fit in, and I tried to be somebody that I wasn’t. I was probably a lot more blokey than I am, I was swearing more, I was probably drinking a lot more. I just tried to fit into that culture.

I think it doesn’t really matter what culture you’re trying to get into, if you are just trying too hard, you’re never bringing your true self to work. The really important thing is that you remember who you are and bring your true self to work. It’s the most important thing. When you find that, that’s when you get true belonging.

ML: How did you ensure your mental wellbeing while you were serving in the military?

MH: Mental health and wellbeing, I would say, is talked about a lot more now. You can’t literally, you know, move for hearing about it, but it was barely mentioned when I was in the military. I think the most stressful period I had was when I was going through flying training. I was flying the Hawk aircraft, which is the one that the Red Arrows fly, and it’s quite a basic – certainly, the model I was flying! So, there was no GPS, there was no moving map. You literally had a paper map and a compass and you’re trying to do all these mental gymnastics in your head. It was really stressful. One
of my colleagues described it as doing an advanced driving test twice a day for 10 months!

So, you can imagine the pressure was immense and if you started to struggle, there was little discussed in the form of mental first aid and mental health in general. There was nothing, it was a real case of… I would suppose we would say it was quite misogynistic in those days. It was full of alpha male characters and when you started to struggle, it was almost like, ‘we found a weakness,’ right?

You won’t be good enough to get to the front line because you are showing, you know, fallibility in this certain area. Now, this has changed, because they’ve recognised that they spend all this money, time, effort on these people, they’re not just going to get rid of them because they are struggling.

Now they have life coaches, they talk about mental health and it’s just much more refreshing to hear. I look back when I was going through those final stages and I’d failed a couple of trips and, you know, I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t really sleeping. I had skin rashes all over my body. I went to the doctor, and I said, ‘I have these skin rashes everywhere.’ They just simply said, ‘have you changed your washing powder?’ Not, ‘are you incredibly stressed?’

Sometimes, your body can have a physical reaction, but they didn’t discuss that at all. I thought, ‘well, I haven’t changed my washing powder… I can’t think what it could be?’ We just weren’t talking about [mental health], and I think therefore we bottled it up.

I know that a lot of people really did struggle. I certainly did, and I wouldn’t have got through it had it not been for my colleagues identifying that I was very stressed and them coming up with solutions to help me.

ML: How can businesses facilitate a work-life balance, particularly for their female employees?

MH: Well, I don’t think it is just for women. We’ve talked about the work-life balance around the female side of things, but I think until you have that full inclusion across the entire board, for men and women, we will not achieve a work-life balance. Men have realised they don’t want to be commuting daily, they don’t want that. And, neither do women – people don’t want that.

So, rather than just carrying on the way we were doing it, all businesses are seeing this huge change. It’s not just a work life balance, it’s just life, because businesses have realised they can trust their employees to work from home.

In fact, we’ve seen productivity go up, because people are wanting to prove that working from home works. There are no distractions, so you’re not chatting to people around the coffee bar for hours! If you take away all those little bits in a day, you’re probably gaining another, maybe, hour, possibly two hours of the working day.

Add to that the lack of commuting, people feel they’ve got a much better quality of life. I think that’s something that’s going to come as a real positive from the events of the last few years.”

*Mandy Hickson is happy to speak at events linked to International Women’s Day events.

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