“It’s easy to think the Royal Air Force is just made up of pilots. It is much, much more than that.”
The words of Air Vice Marshal Tam Jennings, head of the RAF’s Legal Branch, as she and a team of other influential Air Force women welcomed around 150 teenage girls to the RAF Museum at Hendon.
The Year 10s – aged 14-15 – had come from schools across North London to participate in a Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) activity day.
It was aimed not just at broadening their understanding of the subjects – but to get them thinking about what a career in the RAF, or the wider aviation industry, could do for them.
Under the dim lighting of Hangar 1, the girls crowded eagerly around what resembled an interactive war room. Poignant questions, designed to spark debate, flitted around a grey touch-screen map in the centre of the exhibition space.
Should robots be used to fight in wars? Would they increase, or decrease the number of lives lost in conflict?
LISTEN: Air Vice-Marshal Tam Jennings talks to BFBS Radio
To AVM Jennings, the enthusiasm lighting up the girls’ faces, as they bounced viewpoints and ideas off each other, was inspiring.
She said: “I have stood and watched these young ladies become engaged with this debate.
“I’ve watched them look at the issues, get passionate about them, and really start to understand them.”
AVM Jennings knows what it’s like to be first among equals.
She is one of only three women in the RAF with a two-star ranking – which becomes two when newly-promoted Air Marshal Sue Gray takes up her post as Director General of the Defence Safety Authority.
She added: “I was drawn to the RAF because it was a career that didn’t actually define you by your gender. All of the opportunities I was interested in at the time were open to women.
“My father, mother and grandmother were also in the Air Force, so it was always something I had a connection to.
“I know it as an organisation that appreciates women’s input, and judges you on your performance rather than your gender.”
On her status as a two-star, AVM Jennings said: “It’s a really important recognition of everything I’ve achieved; and I’ve done that through my family, friends and colleagues.
“I’m not arrogant enough to think that this is all because of work I’ve done alone.”
“You can reach these heights as a female in the military, because there is no bar. There is no glass ceiling.
“We walk the walk, and we talk the talk – and I’m living proof of that.”
The Year 10 visitors moved on from planning modern warfare, to learning more about the role of women in World War One.
One girl said: “I don’t know a lot about the wars and it’s interesting to see what women did.
“The amount that has been done, that they haven’t been credited for…they have really made a difference and that inspires me.”
AVM Jennings added: “Events like this demonstrate that there are huge numbers of roles – over 50 roles – for people to do in the Air Force.
“Events like this allow people to see that and understand that and see that there might be a place for them where traditionally they may not have done.
"The RAF is absolutely committed to the progression of females, and through inclusivity for anybody.
“It depends on their talent, commitment and performance. That’s going to be the telling factor in terms of whether you progress.”
Listen to Forces Radio BFBS to hear more from Tam Jennings, and more on those all-important STEM subjects!