Global Council for Tolerance and Peace

The sky’s the limit for women in the Air Force, despite ‘sexist’ stereotypes

Leading Aircraftwoman Tahlea Fletcher-Mathews lets out an audible groan.

She’s just been asked the dreaded question — what’s it like to be a woman in the Defense Force?

“I’m pretty sick of it,” she quipped.

“It’s not what you are, the job is what it is.

“Just because I’m a female doesn’t mean I should be asked, ‘do you enjoy it because you’re a female’?”

The seasoned dog handler is one of a growing number of women supporting Australia’s military operations — from far-flung corners of the country to the Middle East.

“I do think it is changing, there’s definitely a lot more females coming through now,” Leading Aircraftwoman Fletcher-Mathews said.

“Just come in, come in and enjoy it … Take it for what it is.”

Katherine Mitchell is one of 40 female pilots currently serving in the Royal Australian Air Force — but the only qualified female flight crew in her squadron.

It’s a grueling role and certainly no easy feat.

But while she concedes there are challenges serving in the Defense Force, being a woman is not one of them.

“There’s a bit of a cultural shift, just as society changes in general … and that’s coming into the Defense Force,” Pilot Officer Mitchell said.

“It’s a fantastic job, you get to all sorts of amazing places and there’s no reason you can’t do it.”

‘It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female’

Air Force leadership is acutely aware that for the department to function effectively — and to operate the increasingly complex capabilities of the sector — they must recruit from the widest talent pool possible.

Increasing the number of women walking through their doors forms a key part of that strategy.

As of May, this year, women accounted for 22 per cent of the permanent workforce in the Royal Australian Air Force.

Leading Aircraftwoman Melissa Bertosa is one of them.

You probably won’t see her as a Top Gun anytime soon, but behind the scenes, she helps ensure events like Darwin’s Pitch Black — one of the largest military exercises in the Southern Hemisphere — runs as smoothly as possible.

“I deal with a lot of personnel applications for members in the ADF, I also arrange travel for members to participate in exercises and travel around Australia,” she said.

“I do similar here [at Pitch Black], but I work a lot with room and car allocations … a lot of admin stuff.”

As an Indigenous woman, Leading Aircraftwoman Bertosa knows the importance of representation in her field.

“They are really pushing for equality,” she said.

“I know there’s not a lot of Indigenous people in the Defense Force or RAAF, so it’s a privilege to be here.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Leading Aircraftwoman Jasmine Gosper.

The air surveillance officer is tasked with monitoring up to 100 aircraft sharing the Top End skies at any one time during Pitch Black.

“It’s a lot more intense than what we’re used to … being in the Defense Force is challenging all round, it doesn’t matter if you’re female or male,” she said.

“Don’t be off-put by the fact that a lot of people think it’s really male oriented and you might come across sexism, it’s not the case.”

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