• Michelle Partington

It’s not about the tackle you carry…

2018 ended very well for me, winning Women in Defence Woman of the Year 2018. It was truly very humbling and I left the year feeling confident I do in fact have what it takes to do exactly what I set my mind to.

I joined the RAF in 1991 a very naive, under confident individual. I was like a rabbit in headlights, not really sure what I had done joining up. I was soon to realise that it was the best thing I ever did for myself, both on a personal and professional level. I worked hard physically but my greatest battle was most definitely mentally. I had been told many, many times throughout my life that I “wouldn’t be good enough” and that I should “know my place”. That mindset is very hard to break down and move beyond. I was told this by just a small number of naïve, ignorant or narcissistic individuals. Imagine that tenfold from a stereotypical societal view; that’s a heck of a battle to win.

During my career I was very lucky not to have experienced this too much. There is one particular moment where I encountered huge gender bias and that was when I volunteered to take up a paramedic role with the RAF Regiment in Afghanistan. This was a new role and at the time of applying there was a male paramedic in theatre carrying out the role. He had been fairly vocal about the role needing to be a male only position due to the arduous conditions and tasks required to undertake. I couldn’t understand why because the RAF Regiment required a qualified paramedic, gender should not have come into it. However, questions were raised at that point as to whether my application should be accepted. Questions such as, “will a female be able to keep up on foot patrols”, “will they require a separate admin area”, “will the men be distracted by having a female on tour with them”, to name but a few. Now, I’m not going to focus on these individual comments but needless to say, I stood my ground and they ‘let me go’. This was to be the best tour and the making of me! I fully immersed myself in the tour and my gender was most definitely not under question at any time. I proved that it matters not what ‘tackle’ you carry but whether you have the tenacity and the will carry out the role. Its what’s in your head and heart that counts and yes, mentally, women can be very strong but brute strength may not match up in some cases. If wars where won on brute strength alone I wonder whether many outcomes would have been different? Incidentally, I know many women who are far stronger physically than a lot of men.

Following my career which didn’t end the way I would have liked, I fought a very different battle indeed. I was diagnosed with complex-PTSD following a further 2 tours in Afghanistan as part of the Medical Emergency Response Team. Once I was medically discharged it was very difficult to source the help I needed, battling alongside views that PTSD is predominantly a “male soldiers condition”. Yes, that was actually said to me!

Women have a place in this world and should have an equal footing to men. We know things are changing but far too slowly because of individuals who won’t move forward with their views. I believe a lot of our stereotypical perceptions develop from childhood, listening to our parents or guardians, playground chatter and beyond the education field and on into society. Education to challenge and change views must start from an early age so we can break this perceived view on the roles of men and women in the world. Sadly, views are also gained from what is portrayed in the news, papers and the social media platforms who all have a part to play in facilitating gender bias. Take the picture below:

This image created a false view on what the event was created for. On first view you could understand comments made about the irony of being an all male panel because no doubt that was the intention of whoever posted the photo to the media platforms. The negative comments came mainly from individuals not in attendance at the event and whose perception was taken from that photo alone.

The men in the photo are all command warrant officers, along with the Senior Enlisted Advisor, all of whom are currently male, representing their service and advocates for promoting women in defence. They play a crucial part of the whole conversation on women in defence. One day there will be females on the panel as well as running the whole event but at least the conversation has begun, to challenge the obvious marginalisation which still exists. We need to move forward and challenge the structural bias and discrimination and this requires a more diverse, inclusive workplace, prepared to put experience over gender. Women in Defence UK promotes the value of women in defence and works to identify and encourage women to stand up and have the courage to face these challenges. Shouldn’t we all ask why the world is still the way it is? Women prove on a daily basis that they CAN DO, and we will no longer wait to be ‘allowed to do so’.

On a personal note, I was very honoured to have been nominated for 2 Women In Defence awards and winning both. Winning the Special Award and the overall Women In Defence Woman of the Year 2018 award, not only rounded off a fantastic year for me but also gave me the final chapter of my military career, a positive ending. I hope to work closely with Women In Defence as well as the wider community in promoting equality, inclusion and diversity in all elements of life. We all matter and we all have the ability; we all deserve the right to be heard and I for one will stand firm and shout loud and proud!

Only one more thing to say….


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