Nicole Malachowski had spent her life trying, as she says, “to blend in with the guys.” That’s not surprising: As a 1996 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, one of the first female fighter pilots in the U.S. Air Force and the first woman among the Air Force’s legendary Thunderbirds demonstration squad, Malachowski was forging a new path.
For years, she says, “I didn’t want to be known as ‘the woman fighter pilot,’ and tried my best to stay under the radar,” admitting it was emotionally draining to do so. But all of a sudden she found herself not only the commander of a fighter squad but also the wife of a fellow airman deployed in a combat zone — and the mother of year-old twins.
“I was trying hard to be the commander in front of the guys, but as an airman’s wife, I finally needed to ask people from my husband’s squad to help me. They brought food and mowed my lawn,” she says. “Finally one day I needed to set up the playpen and bring my twins into work with me. And my team saw a different side of me, one they recognized in themselves. It brought joy to everyone. And when I unveiled all of myself, they started sharing as well.”
Malachowski, an Iraq war veteran now retired from the Air Force, says it increased the trust between her and her team, and ultimately “made our mission better.”
The lesson, she says: “We need to bring all of ourselves to work, not just part. What we need to do as women is unapologetically wear all of our hats all the time — whether that’s wife, mom, dealer or friend. When we start to censor parts of ourselves for different people and in different circumstances, it steals our light.”
As a woman in not only the military, but the elite group of fighter pilots, she says, “I get asked a lot: ‘Wow, the guys must have been hard on you, right?’ But honestly, once I made the decision to wear all my hats, and was willing to asking for help, 99% of the time people responded positively to that. As women, we need to do better about asking for what we need.”
Today, Malachowski spends much of her time on the road as a speaker and advocate for women, for military families and for patients who suffer from tick-borne illnesses, as she has. Her mantra is to “live an unscripted life,” she says. “The greatest moments in my life have come from that willingness to be different, to try something new, to plow a path that hasn’t been plowed before.”
She has a message for young women like her, who want to pursue careers in historically male-dominated industries like automotive: “It’s OK to have big and gnarly goals and to speak them out loud. When you speak it out into the universe you have an opportunity to make it come true. And if you can maintain integrity to yourself—who you are, what you value, and be willing to prioritize those things — it makes it a lot easier to break through that noise of cultural expectations.”
She recommends “nurturing close working relationships” and finding mentors and supporters who will be positive but also challenge. Although she says those mentors can be men or women — understanding that in many cases, women in automotive may not be able to find a lot of peers who are women — she acknowledges the importance of industry women supporting each other.
“We also have to accept the fact that it does mean something to see someone who looks like you succeeding,” she says. “If you’re a woman plowing a path in the auto industry, you can take pride that you’re serving as a role model to some young woman somewhere — and young men too. Just by being you, you’re influencing people’s behavior.”