Scott Wolff

Christine Mau takes her final flight in the F-35.

This story is part of “Ceiling Smashers,” a series in which successful women across industries tell MarketWatch how they broke down professional barriers.

When she was a child, Christine Mau’s home in Laguna Hills, Calif., sat beneath the flight path of F-4 jets screeching across the sky from the since-decommissioned El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Irvine.

“There I was as a five-year-old, looking up at these big, bad F-4s just making noise and just looking awesome,” Mau, 44, told MarketWatch. “I told my mom, ‘I want to do that someday.’”

The urge to fly runs in the family. Her father was an Air National Guard C-130 pilot turned Continental Airlines

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  pilot, and her grandfather flew the B-24 bomber in WWII.

But Mau didn’t see her ambitions crystallize until around sixth grade, when she watched Maverick and Goose fly an F-14 Tomcat in the 1986 film “Top Gun.”

‘There I was as a five-year-old, looking up at these big, bad F-4s just making noise and just looking awesome. I told my mom, ‘I want to do that someday.’

—Christine Mau, the first female F-35 fighter pilot

Mau nabbed her top choice of airplane after pilot training: the two-seat F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet, which she considered “the most impressive airplane at that time.” She flew the F-15E for most of her career, clocking more than 500 combat hours in Operations Iraqi Freedom, Southern Watch, Northern Watch and Enduring Freedom.

“I loved that you had a crew working together,” she said, referring to the pilot and weapon systems officer involved. “It’s also a total badass fighter that drops every bomb in our inventory.”

In March 2011, she made history leading the first-ever all-female F-15E combat mission — planned, briefed, launched and flown by women, and dubbed “Dudette 07” — to support coalition and Afghan ground forces. “It was the coolest, most surreal experience,” she said. “I kind of felt like the WASPs may have felt during World War II.”

In 2015, she became the first woman to pilot an F-35 fighter jet. She retired in 2017 as a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel.

By her junior year of high school, she had grown serious about attending a military academy. She researched how to boost her odds of getting to pilot training, and focused her college efforts on gaining entry to the United States Air Force Academy.

Mau received her nomination and acceptance to the Academy in 1993, the same year then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin directed the military to allow women fly fighters and bombers in combat. (Aspin also implemented former president Bill Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 1994.)

Mau didn’t see her ambitions crystallize until around fourth grade, when she watched Maverick and Goose fly an F-14 Tomcat in the 1986 film ‘Top Gun.’

Through her research, Mau was inspired by the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), a group of civilian pilots who flew 60 million miles on an assortment of non-combat missions during World War II. In 1977, they received retroactive veteran status, and in 2010, Congress awarded them the Congressional Gold Medal. (The Air Force began accepting women on an equal basis with men in 1976.)

“They did a lot of really cool things back when societal and gender norms were totally against that,” Mau said. “If they could do that back in the ’40s, well, clearly I could become a fighter pilot in the ’90s.” She says the Combat Exclusion Act barely registered as she gamed out her flying career. “I kind of put the horse blinders on and just [kept] moving forward,” she said.

Mau, a tomboy growing up, also had a long-held “anything you can do, I can do better” competitive streak — “especially when it came to boys thinking they were better than me because they were a boy and I was a girl,” she said.

After a 20-year career in the Air Force, Mau retired in 2017 as an F-35 instructor pilot. She now works on the other side of the equation for Lockheed Martin

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, the prime contractor for the fighter jet, training Air Force and Navy student pilots on the F-35 at Eglin Air Force Base in northwest Florida.

As with jobs in the civilian sector, women in the Air Force have lower numbers higher up the chain. Female Air Force officers make up 21.1% of people in the pay grades of second lieutenant through lieutenant colonel, 13.9% of officers at the colonel pay grade, and 7.5% of those at brigadier general pay grade and beyond, according to an analysis of 2016 Air Force personnel data by the nonprofit think tank RAND.

Women make up just 766 (or 6.2%) of the United States Air Force’s 12,349 pilots, according to data from the Air Force Personnel Center.

Women are also less likely than men to occupy “rated” Air Force jobs (that is, positions that involve flying), “which have the highest promotion and retention rates,” according to a separate 2014 RAND report prepared for the Air Force. Women make up just 766 (or 6.2%) of the Air Force’s 12,349 pilots, according to the Air Force Personnel Center.

That proportion tracks with statistics from civilian aviation, where women make up about 4.4% of airline transport pilots and 6.6% of commercial pilots, per the Federal Aviation Administration.

Mau loved the loudness, the speed and the aggressiveness of flying. She arrived at the Air Force Academy a “blank slate,” she said, and tried her best to replicate everything her instructors taught her to do. She wanted to be a fighter pilot and made choices to maximize her chances — performing well in a flight-screening program that would enable her to compete for Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training (ENJJPT) at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, and completing that program as a distinguished graduate in 1999.

“Back then, everybody who went to ENJJPT got fighters,” Mau said. “So I said, ‘OK, well, this will definitely increase my odds.’”

In both the Academy and pilot training, Mau grew “really thick skin” that enabled her to appreciate feedback and withstand the intense scrutiny of debriefs, during which every little mistake is critiqued to the “Nth degree of detail.” “I’ve seen men cry in debriefs,” she said. “I’ve wanted to punch holes in walls in debriefs.”

Scott Wolff

Mau was the first female pilot to fly an F-35 fighter jet.

In 2015, she was the first woman selected to fly the F-35, a single-seat aircraft that Lockheed Martin boasts is “designed to defeat today’s most advanced threat systems both in the air and on the ground.” “It’s demanding; it requires so much of your attention and focus and skill,” Mau said. “But here’s the thing: The jet doesn’t care whether you’re a man or a woman.”

The retired Air Force pilot suggested that a combination of forces poses barriers to women becoming pilots, including societal norms, a scarcity of role models and the perception that flying while raising a family may be untenable.

Mau herself has two daughters aged 9 and 12. She took a non-flying job and pursued a master’s degree during her two pregnancies, as women can’t fly fighter jets while pregnant due to safety concerns. “No one really knows what to do with a pregnant fighter pilot,” she said. But she insists that balancing flying with raising kids is doable, and says the struggle to balance work and family is universal among men and women.

Mau took a non-flying job and pursued a master’s degree during her two pregnancies: ‘No one really knows what to do with a pregnant fighter pilot.’

To be sure, Mau says she experienced her share of sexism from some “old dinosaurs” in the military, particularly in her early career. She also met some “fantastic leaders” who wouldn’t tolerate discrimination or maltreatment. The horse blinders and thick skin served her well, she said.

Others have experienced worse than sexism. Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), an Air Force veteran who was the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, disclosed earlier this year that she was “preyed upon and raped by a superior officer.”

Sexual misconduct remains a problem in the armed forces: About two in three women have experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault in the military, according to a late-2018 Smithsonian poll of more than 1,000 veterans and active-duty service members, 76 of whom were women. The Defense Department in 2018 said it had received 6,769 sexual assault reports “involving service members as either victims or subjects of criminal investigation” in fiscal year 2017, a 10% increase from the previous year.

“Flying is the ultimate equalizer,” Mau said. “So you may not like me, simply because I’m a woman, but when I get in that airplane and I’m able to out-fly you … You want the best to be defending our nation, fighting our nation’s battles.”

She urged young women who want to serve in the military — especially those interested in flying — to “go for it” and avoid limiting themselves. Go to college, become commissioned in the military and learn to fly, she said, keeping an eye out for scholarships and other resources. “Grow some thick skin and get some people to support you,” Mau added. “I had lots of naysayers, and so I just ignored those people who didn’t support me.”

Being a fighter pilot, Mau said, “is really all about breaking things and killing bad guys.”

“You’re supposed to protect good guys along the way — that’s a subset of it, of course — but you constantly have to be finding targets and killing bad guys in the air,” she said. “Every minute that you’re airborne is challenging and demanding and requires a lot of your attention and focus. I love that challenge.”

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