Col. Nicole Malachowski knows how to soar — and she knows a thing or two about leadership in a male-dominated field. The retired Air Force pilot, who flew a F-15E Strike Eagle and went on to be the first female Thunderbird airshow participant in an F-16, also served in 26 combat missions.
“You never know who you are inspiring. It’s about being a woman and being darn good advisor, for instance,” she explained at the 25th annual Women’s Symposium of Raymond James on Wednesday.
“I look out, and this is the biggest crowd of women I have ever spoken to. When I started out in the military, there weren’t these kind of events until about five years into my service,” she told a crowd of roughly 420 female advisors and 300 other guests, most of whom are female client associates with Raymond James, employees of the firm and event sponsors.
While about 15% of advisors are women, about 18% of the active-duty Air Force is female, she says.
How many women are pilots? Out of 12,000 pilots in the Air Force, just 750, or 2%, according to the former Thunderbird. But back in World War II, more than 1,000 women flew in the Army Air Corps, she adds.
As for female fighter pilots, there are 63 out of a total group of 3,000. “It’s a small number,” Malachowski explained.
When she was picked in 2005 to be the first female Thunderbird pilot, “I hated it,” Malachowski said. “I wanted to be an extraordinary Thunderbird, a skilled fighter pilot, so I bristled at the label ‘first female.’”
But at her first air show, she noticed a line of about 20 individuals trying to get signatures from the male pilots and over 100 in her line.
“Most were women who were 18 to 20 years old,” the ex-pilot said. The response showed her that “it means something to see someone who looks like you succeeding. It’s not about Nicole, but about the art of the possible.”
“It’s all about authenticity,” Malachowski explained. “Breaking barriers requires integrity. You must maintain fidelity to who you truly are. Do not censor part of yourself.”
She then went on to explain what it took to overcome self doubt in a male-dominated environment: “We all have those moments, women and men alike, when we don’t want to be different” by raising our hands or standing out in other ways.
In her mid-30s, after being in combat and acting as a mission commander, the pilot thought about applying to be a Thunderbird: “Every year, we were asked to put in an application. I would delete and delete the messages,” she said.