Dear Flt Lt Jo Salter

On the day you took to the air as the RAF's first female combat pilot, your employer was ordered to pay £15,000 to a woman it sacked during pregnancy. So much for sex equality. Watch out, Flt Lt...

It would be churlish not to congratulate you - the first woman to sit at the controls of an RAF combat aircraft.

You are not, press handouts say, a standard-bearer for equality and that is perhaps fortunate, given the RAF's record in this field. For on the day you flew your Tornado across Yorkshire, an ex-colleague of yours, medical assistant Victoria Edwards, won damages against the RAF for sex discrimination. She had done exactly what you, in your interviews, say you want to do some day - she got pregnant.

Ms Edwards opted, as you say you would, to take maternity leave, but the RAF dismissed her during her pregnancy because she could no longer wear her regulation stockings. Stockings, she was told, are part of the uniform and she had to wear the uniform. If she couldn't wear her uniform, she must leave.

It is the stockings that are the news. Once, the RAF would have dismissed her for being pregnant, without finding an excuse. Apparently, it wasn't until 1990, when several ex-servicewomen took the Ministry of Defence to court for damages after being sacked during pregnancy, that the Government discovered that it had to abide by European Community equality law.

We are asked to believe that the MoD had breached EC law for 12 years by mistake because it thought it would be all right to exempt all women employed by the armed services from equality legislation, including the right to maternity leave. Some lawyers think the MoD has been a little disingenuous. Is it likely it didn't know it was avoiding EC law?

You may never find out because, while you were preparing for yesterday's big event, the MoD was in court arguing for its right to keep secret all papers relating to the treatment of pregnant women in the armed services. So determined is it to keep this paperwork secret that it has threatened to seek a public interest immunity certificate if the court finds against it.

One cannot help wondering what the MoD has to hide. I think perhaps you should be worrying too, but don't breathe a word of your worry to your colleagues. The MoD doesn't like its employees to complain. Some women serving in the Navy were told (unofficially, of course) that a single complainant might be tolerated, but if two women were to complain together, it might be construed as mutiny - which is a criminal offence.

So as you fly over us, consider whether you are there as the latest recruit of an equal opportunities employer or as a smokescreen for embarrassing court decisions. Today, you are on top of the world. The day you decide to have a child, you may find the RAF has something a lot more sophisticated than stockings to bring you down to earth.

Voices
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