UK Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson and Royal Air Force (RAF) Air Marshal Sue Gray, the highest ranking woman in the British Armed Forces, marked International Women’s Day on Friday at the Defence College of Technical Training in RAF Cosford.

They met 45 female apprentices across nine science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) trades, including communications, survival equipment, photography and fitness training.

Williamson said: “As we celebrate not just International Women’s Day but also national apprenticeship week, it’s a fine time to recognise the skills we have in the Armed Forces. We’re hoping to encourage more young people, both men and women, to join our Armed Forces. If we didn’t have the investment in terms of STEM subjects them we wouldn’t be able to function in terms of our Armed Forces as expected today. The technology requires a very high level of skills and people best able to deal with those cutting-edge technologies.”

Williamson said that opening all Armed Forces roles to women for the first time in 2019, including ground close combat and the Royal Marines, was important.

“I feel very proud that we were able to make that move,” he said. “I’ve got two daughters; I’d want to know that any role in the Armed Forces is one that’s open to them if they wanted to go for it. The role that women play – not just the in Air Force but also the Army and Navy – is vast. You’re already now seeing the first of our three-star ranked Air Marshall Sue Gray coming into the Royal Air Force, and you’ll see women are taking increasingly bigger and bigger roles across all three services and bringing that skill and knowledge into the Armed Forces benefits everyone.”

He added that having women in senior ranks to act as mentors for those coming up through the ranks was inspirational.

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“We all look for inspiration in life; we look for those role models, those individuals that are going to inspire us and make us want to achieve more,” he said. “Having Sue in one of the very top jobs in the Armed Forces for me is absolutely vital. It is sending a message that whether you join the Royal Air Force, the Navy or the Army; you can succeed and get to the top.

“I very much hope to see the first four-star female appointed hopefully not too far into the future. It’s bringing more women into the Armed Forces. We shouldn’t be having 50% of a population thinking they can’t contribute. So we want to see more and more women, whether that’s close combat roles or support roles, they’re making an enormous difference to our Armed Forces.”

Williamson said the British Armed Forces is the biggest employer of apprentices of any organisation in Britain, with 20,000 apprentices.

“In the RAF 19 out of 20 people that join the RAF are doing apprenticeships, it’s an amazing success rate,” he said. “If you join the Armed Forces with any of the three services, you’re pretty well guaranteed to leave better-trained, fitter both physically and mentally, and you’re going to be set up for succeeding in the future. More importantly than that, when you’re in the Armed Forces you can make such an amazing contribution not just for yourself or for your country but globally in terms of making a difference, and that is something that really does inspire so many young people to want to join.”

Air Marshal Sue Gray was promoted to her current rank last month, becoming the RAF’s first ever female three-star officer and the most senior woman to have ever served in the UK Armed Forces. She will shortly take up the role of Director General of the Defence Safety Authority, responsible for the regulation of health, safety and environmental protection across the Ministry of Defence. A full interview with Air Marshal Gray will appear in the May issue of Global Defence Technology.