How an interest in STEM and the fight for gender equality led this female engineer to the Royal Air Force

Amber Kwok

As a flight lieutenant for the Red Arrows, Alicia Mason is breaking through the military’s glass ceiling and she wants other girls to join her

Amber Kwok |

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The British Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, also known as the Red Arrows, performs all around the world.

The British Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, better known as the Red Arrows, is one of the best-known aerobatic display teams in the world. While it takes a talented pilot to perform such impressive mid-air manoeuvres, a whole team of engineers is needed to maintain the Hawk T1 aircraft used in these famous displays. And it’s engineer and flight lieutenant Alicia Mason’s job to oversee this team and ensure the pilots always have a smooth flight. 

Having spent the past 14 years in an industry dominated by men, Mason has learned some valuable lessons about following your own path in life, and was only too happy to share them with students at Malvern College, near Tai Po, when she visited the school last month.

Alicia Mason is an engineer and flight lieutenant for the British Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team.
Photo: Kelly Ho/SCMP

As a teenager, Mason was “very into physics and technology”, and a career in engineering seemed like the best fit for her interests. But as someone who thrives in a fast-paced environment, she wasn’t really interested in the companies that many of her fellow engineering students applied for. She decided to join the Air Force, knowing it would give her the opportunity to “travel the world, work with different equipment, different aeroplanes, fast jets, unique helicopters, and really cool pieces of equipment”. She also feels a huge sense of pride and patriotism to be part of a team that is famous around the world. “It’s almost like a legacy, being a part of the Royal Air Force aerobatic team and Red Arrows.”

But finding her passion took time. Engineering is still seen by many as a “male” subject, and Mason admits that when she was researching careers in the field, all the brochures depicted strong men equipped with power tools.

“I thought, ‘Well, that doesn’t look like me, why would I want to do that?’”

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Although Mason recognises that there is a lack of female representation in the British military, with women only filling 10 per cent of roles, she maintains that the Air Force holds no gender bias. She recalled how her military training was exactly the same as the men’s, and that rank, uniform and trade are what count in the military, not gender.

“I wore the same trousers and jacket as my male colleagues,” she said. “It’s very much gender-neutral as a group, and that stays with you throughout your career.”

Mason wants other industries to look to hers as an example of gender equality, but feels there is always room for improvement.

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“We’re taking more steps now [towards gender equality] than when I was younger ... but if you don’t have women in those roles, young girls aren’t going to have anyone to look up to.”

That’s why Mason’s team wants to visit schools around the world and speak to young people about the opportunities open to them, in both engineering and the military.

Mason also recognises that not everyone may be interested in a career in the military because they don’t know what kind of roles are available. She wants people to know it isn’t all guns and tanks. 

“In the military, you aren’t just a soldier in the army or a sailor in the navy. There are many different trades you can belong in.”

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge