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Interview with Air Vice-Marshall Elaine West CBE

Elaine West InterviewRAF officer Air Vice-Marshall Elaine West CBE is the First Woman in history to become a military two-star officer. She joined the RAF at 17 years old and now holds rank equivalent to an Army Major General or a Navy Rear Admiral.

She is adamant that the only people to be surprised at her promotion were the public – and that for the MOD it was ‘business as usual!’ She shares with us what keeps a woman holding the highest rank in the modern day RAF sane day to day.

Honesty is the best way to maintain a work/life balance

If you’re honest, then it gives others – including your family – permission to be honest too. It makes high-pressure jobs much easier if you know that your family truly understand your choices and that they know where they stand. You can then know how they really feel.

If I can’t be at an event for my son, I would never say, ‘well I might make it.’ I’m clear: ‘No, I’m so sorry I cannot make it,’ or ‘I can definitely be there for a half hour.’ In fact, operating in this way is also extremely valuable at work too.

Lists save your sanity

They keep a busy life rolling whether it’s in the office or at home. From organising uniforms to defrosting the fridge, lists keep me going.

Women try and do their very best all the time – and we often end up letting people down as a result

When I was nominated for this post, I knew I was going to be the first woman and I walked into it with my eyes open. I sat down with my family and said, ‘If I get this post, these are the best- and worst-case scenarios. So if you don’t want me to do it, then that’s fine.’ Having that conversation and receiving their blessing meant that I could walk into the job with much less stress from the start as I knew I hadn’t set myself up to try and make it work for everyone all the time.

Every day I’m here in this position it is a bonus, so I try and enjoy it as much as possible

I am a realist and having never expected to get this far I maintain the attitude that it’s important to keep checking in and asking myself, ‘am I still enjoying my work?’ and making adjustments accordingly. That’s what stops you from going under with the pressure.

There’s no point doing a job where you are under so much pressure you’re walking around frowning all day.

How on earth can you be a role model then?

You don’t have to go to the Bahamas to relax

Very simple nourishment keeps you well. A walk in the woods with my dogs is great medicine. My husband is my health check too. Listen to your loved ones because they can see what you really need.

Learn how to say no

I learnt this very early on. Don’t say ‘yes’ simply to please someone, knowing that you will cancel. I haven’t done this in all my years in the service. Pre-empt invitations you will have to decline so that you don’t end up in a position of having to do so.

Really and truly the fact that I am a woman in this role makes absolutely zero difference to the MOD

It is absolutely business as usual. It’s the public that had the biggest reaction. I could not believe my story would be of interest to anyone! The public still perceive the military as a male –centric organisation, which is ironic as none of the military do!

We have ladies doing amazing things every hour of every day of every week

And the misperception that the opposite is true is instilled in our youth very early on. I am trustee of an organisation called ‘Inspiring Women’ and I go into primary schools in jeans and none of them can guess what I do. They might think I’m a cook (not a chef, you’ll note!) Then I reappear in my uniform and they are shocked. I explain to the boys that what they see on their X-Box games – driving tanks and flying helicopters –  women absolutely do that too. They are like, ‘wow!!’

It is lack of exposure and awareness that contributes to gender inequality – not the lack of focus on diversity in organisations such as the MOD

We go into schools and the girls start out saying ‘I want to be a dancer/hairdresser’ and by the end, after being inside a helicopter and meeting our winch-woman they realise what else is actually on offer to every single one of them.

Air Vice-Marshall Elaine West CBE – First Woman in history to become a two-star officer

Interview by Deborah Willimott

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