Female cadet pilot challenges the iCommentators of Australian aviation social media.

Who are they to decide whether we deserve to be in the career of our dreams?

I recently attended a Women in Aviation/Aerospace Australia Networking evening. The night was centralised around a panel discussion led by a variety of influential female industry leaders. There were about a hundred people at the event. To be honest, the panel had been discussing topics I had been quite disconnected from until the end when a quiet woman, let’s call her Jessica, put her hand up to tell her story.

Jessica was an engineer in the Defence Force. She told us about her squadron. There were a dozen or so of them, and she was the only woman. She said that she knew wholeheartedly that every single one of her colleagues deserved to be there; that they had worked tirelessly to earn their position. But then there was her. She said that she struggled every single day, looking herself in the mirror, asking herself if she deserved to be where she is today, in her dream job. For some reason, she felt like a fraud.

She asked the panel, “how do I deal with this?”.

Why did she feel that way? Was it because she was a woman? Because she thought she was not good enough? Because she had been told countless times through direct and indirect comments from her colleagues that she was the result of a quota?

The whole time she was speaking the room was dead silent. Everyone seemed to relate to her doubts personally, myself included. While her story was quite logistically different to mine, she spoke of doubts that I have certainly had about myself and my place in the industry. Doubts that I have had both consciously and subconsciously reaffirmed by other people in my social circle, in my family, and in my professional interactions.

That moment has stuck with me. It showed me that I was not alone. What I had been feeling and experiencing was a real phenomenon in our generation and industry as both equality and equity have become a highly visible movement, causing both positive and negative conversation.

Virgin Australia made it known that they set a target for this year’s cadet pilot recruitment drive. The goal was to encourage more females to pursue a career in an area of aviation that is typically male dominated, and to strive for equal gender representation. A feat the iCommentators on social media have had a problem trying to process.

Virgin Australia Cadet Pilots of 2018
The female cadets for 2019.

They have been very quick to make offensive and at times degrading comments and posts. What is most concerning is that a large portion of the Australian aviation community have been reading these posts. They are posts that are achieving nothing but the regress of thinking regarding women and their role in the industry.

These comments and the support they have generated are by definition, bullying. They are fuelling misogynism and sending the aviation industry in Australia backwards.  You might say, “don’t read them”, but that is not the world we live in. Social media is a key part of our lives and the way we connect.  Without it we would be disconnected from our industry, colleagues, challenges and innovations. Avoiding it is not the answer.

Here are some examples I found on Facebook:

“It’s great for all the feminists to think you’re having a win, but will it be a win when all the planes start falling out of the sky?”

“That’s awesome that they ‘won’ those places. Imagine if they had earned those places instead.”

One quote referred to the successful female cadets as “women who looked up and saw an aeroplane and decided they just wanted to give it a red-hot go”.

This style of comment is abundant through-out social media and easy to find by yourself without looking too hard.

Pilot cadetships in the Australian aviation industry are extremely competitive. This year, Virgin Australia had more applications for its ab initio course than ever before, which allowed them to choose the best individual for the program, irrespective of gender.

The recruitment process for Virgin Australia’s cadetship program is run over a 13-week period and involved extensive skills-based and academic testing, designed to identify the best talent. After making a decision through carefully examining the finalists as a product of individual performances, a slight majority of the people Virgin Australia found to be the best fit for their airline in this round just happened to be female.

Virgin Australia is proud of this, regardless of the negative comments they received. They are owning it. They are openly posting it to represent to young girls in the future that aviation is a career they truly can aspire to achieve. That’s the kind of airline I’m proud to be a part of.

It shouldn’t matter whether you have wanted to be a pilot forever, whether you have decided it spontaneously one day or whether you have a family and are ready for a career change. What does matter is that you are passionate about flying, that you are motivated, dedicated and the right fit for the job. That is something that we have proved to the recruitment team of the airline we wanted to work for and now will be working for.

But that is not something we should have to prove to those who take to social media to disempower us.

I think we should go back to Jessica’s story. A story that resonated with every female in that room that night. She didn’t deserve to feel like she didn’t belong in her dream job. She had to sit through the same ground school, pass the same exams and prove the same practical competencies as the rest of her peers. Yet she was still so unsure.

The reason she was so unsure stems out to the way society is playing their cards. This is the security screening staff asking us if we are new flight attendants. This is our close friends from university saying that we will have a much better shot for the position than any other applicants due to our gender. This is distant family members questioning whether you have the brains to tackle concepts such as engines and performance. We have gotten used to these things, accustomed to them as a natural part of trying to make it as a female in aviation. But now it is amplified by the social media warriors who have decided to play their hand through their computer screens in a bid to reaffirm old preconceptions attempting to raise doubts that have no right being there.

So many young females in aviation now have another hurdle that they have to jump if they want to achieve their dream. I did not fully appreciate the negative effect of these comments until I felt them personally. They have the potential to dissuade so many people from entering the industry. We are all young aspirational pilots who are 100% committed to our careers. Either you support us all, mentor us and use your maturity and experience for good, or you sabotage and undermine the initiatives of so many industry leaders pushing for change.

These people need to know that what they are doing is not okay, not in this generation or ever again.

 

Special thank you to Kirsty Ferguson from Pinstripe Solutions for helping make this article happen!

16 thoughts on “Female cadet pilot challenges the iCommentators of Australian aviation social media.

  1. What a privilege to support the next round of Virgin Aviators. I look at that photograph and feel nothing but pride at your achievements. I also applaud Virgin for their continued initiative around equality, training standards and industry leadership. Well done one and all. Kirsty

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  2. An interesting and generally well articulated article. Whilst I am very understanding of the importance to encourage more women to take up Aviation as a career, whether as a pilot or otherwise, I am personally one who disagrees with the approach that Virgin Australia took in their latest cadetship candidate selection process. By outrightly setting a 50/50 gender target for selection of cadets, you are actually potentially discounting someone’s success based on their gender. Setting a 50/50 gender target is not an ideal way of selecting candidates for flying cadetships. Selection of airline pilots should only ever be based on the merits of the individual – race, gender or preference aside. From a flight training perspective, the ability of an individual to excel in their studies has not, nor ever will have anything to do with Gender. VA’s approach to this was a completely wrong and inapporpriate one. True Equality would have been focussing on ensuring that an equal number of applicants from both genders had applied for the positions. From that pool, candidates should have then been selected based purely on merit – all other factors aside. That is Gender equality – giving everyone an equal opportunity to succeed. However, by saying that you are then only going to select 50% men and 50% women opens the possibility of potentially denying someone with the necessary skills and talent to be accepted into the cadetship because of their gender. I have spent years as an Airline flight examiner and I have flown with some absolutely skilled and brilliant women – in many instances, they have stood head and shoulders above their male counterparts. However, this is because of their inidividual talents, it is not because of their Gender. Talent in talent acquisition is what we should be encouraging and ensuring that the talent pool gives everyone, from all genders and walks of life, an equal opportunity to succeed. 🙂

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    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment and engage in this important conversation. A flight examiners point of view will provide an additional dimension and your points are well made.

      In a perfect world where there are no minorities or biases of any kind, all comers are provided with informed career choices and guidance and are considered for those opportunities based on merit. However, in an industry that is historically gender biased and struggles to even engage women into it, there needs to be a driving force for change, and Virgin Australia was ready to support that.

      Each candidate for a cadetship is required to meet the standards throughout the assessment and recruitment process. If you don’t, you will not get that coveted “yes… you got the role”. There was no hand-out of positions due to gender – it was just a target not a quota. If you pass the assessement day and the academic requirements, with the right the movitation and potential then you have earned the opportunity. I cannot speak for all airlines that are following similar methods of recruitment but with VA we definitely had to fight for our place to be there, irrespective of our gender.

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      1. Thanks for taking the time to reply Kate. You are absolutely right in that as with any other candidates, you all had to jump through the hoops and meet the requirements to get through the final selection process. Please don’t think in any way that my comments are detracting from that fact. You and the other cadets have obviously worked hard to get to this point, as have all of us. I was merely disappointed in the way that VA approached the concept of gender targetting, especially to the point where you are now perhaps finding yourself put into a position where your legitimacy is being questioned, and ultimately being asked whether or not your gender might be part of the reason why you were selected. That is not fair and sadly, that in itself takes away from your successes. However, this is the reality of how candidates are viewed when gender inspired recruitment drives such as this one take prominence. As I said earlier, I’m very enthusiastic to see more women taking up roles in Aviation and I think its important to encourage people from all walks of life to follow their dreams and not be turned off by pre assumptions that they are not capable or otherwise. The real journey of hardwork and determination begins now in the early 2-3000 hours of your career and I can tell you from experience that it only ends when you’ve flown your final flight. I wish you all a long, prosperous, enjoyable and safe career. Your passion and humility in these early stages are positive signs and I hope they remain with you to the end. Safe and happy flying!

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  3. Hi Cate,

    First of all, I want to congratulate you on your fantastic achievement in earning a place as a cadet at Virgin Australia! I understand how difficult and stressful these recruitment programs can be, so it must be a relief to say ‘hey, I did it!’. Again, well done!

    I wanted to add my two cents drawing on my own experiences as I had very mixed feelings about the VA gender target.

    I currently work in the industry as a charter pilot. For quite a while, I was the only female pilot in my workplace and there were times where I felt somewhat isolated simply because of my gender. I had my fair share of negative ‘female pilot’ comments and you are absolutely right, actually receiving those comments for the first time was difficult. Sometimes I even get these comments from my passengers and I have since learnt to be firm and confident in my own abilities.

    Not long ago, I applied to become a pilot in the Defence Force. During the recruitment days there would typically be another candidate, male, who was applying for the same role. I remember meeting a bright young gentleman on one of the mornings, and we both wished each other good luck. I sat down at a computer for the next hour getting hammered with difficult math questions and I felt almost overwhelmed with it all. I personally thought I had done ‘okay’ but not spectacularly. I got to talk to the gentleman after the math test and he felt like he too only did ‘okay’ despite maths being his strong point. We got called to our interview shortly after and I came out with a piece of paper that said I was to continue to the next round of testing where as he came out with a piece of paper that said he did not get through and could reattempt next year. Who knows, maybe I did perform better in that maths test than he did. What struck me though, was that my interviewer kept harping on about how they need more females in the Defence Force. I remember instantly thinking ‘did you lower the standards for females, just so we could get through?’.

    I cancelled my application not long after, primarily because I didn’t think I was ready to work in a Defence Force environment. There was also a part of me that felt like the standard was being lowered to accommodate me. I wanted to be the best pilot that I could be, and I certainly didn’t want to get through just because of my gender.

    Starting my first flying job was a challenge within itself. I was constantly doubting my ability simply because I saw my male counterparts picking up things and excelling quicker than I was. I can openly admit that flying doesn’t come naturally to me and that I’ve had to work hard to get across the benchmark. What was somewhat comforting is that our chief pilot is a ‘no bullshit’ sort of person, and I knew that if I passed my check to line flight with him, it was because I ticked the boxes and not because it was a sympathy pass. It’s a

    I hope to think that VA ensured that they recruited the best and that other talented male applicants who could have been the right fit were not turned away because of a 50/50 quota. I don’t want a special quota, I just want to know that we can do the job just as good.

    Reading your article instilled a bit of faith that VA hired equally, and that it was a target and not a quota. I hope you continue writing about your experiences (you’re a very talented writer might I add!) and that you enjoy your journey with VA. All the best!

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    1. Hi Alex. Thank you for engaging with the post and sharing your experiences. I think it is definitely easy to be sceptical of the gender target hiring scheme and I appreciate you taking the time to tell your story.

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  4. Face it. You got the Cadetship purely because you are female. You really think you performed better than the other 3984 applicants? Or you were just amongst the better female applicants? You would probably not get the position if you were male, and I think you understand that.

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  5. Hi Kate,

    I’m not going to dwell on the way in which Virgin Australia recruit, but the main thing is that you were successful! What an awesome opportunity! Also, well done for speaking out about how you feel.

    I just want to give my advice regarding the aviation industry, particularly the Australian aviation industry. Being a pilot, as I’m sure you are now aware, is extremely competitive and driven by very passionate people. Because of this, people become very jealous of other people succeeding. Especially those who in their eyes, are ‘short cutting’ the system and skipping the hard work. I.e. a cadetship and not working in GA for 10+ years.

    I don’t think fellow pilots have any issues with females at all. However, all pilots in general get extremely jealous of others succeeding. When I joined my first airline, I had half a dozen of my ‘friends’ make negative comments about this airline, which is an international legacy carrier a.k.a. the dream job! I later realised that these same people had already applied for positions at the same airline and are we unsuccessful.

    My advice is, use these negative comments as fuel to ace your next ATPL or sim check, and prove all the keyboard warriors exactly why you deserve to be where you are! You’re the one with this golden opportunity, not them!

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  6. Hey Felix,

    I am honestly really shocked by your comment.

    I think you know that your claim is absolutely absurd. Their is a multitude of studies showing that neither male or female are insupior in their ability to perform a task but simply do it differently due to the strengths and weaknesses of each gender. Just because the majority of pilots are male, doesn’t mean that females aren’t just as good pilots. So what? Virgin after rigorous testing found that out of this round, the most impressive and suitable candidates happened to be girls? Shock horror. I hope that if you have a daughter one day you reasses your close mindedness because I would hate to think she won’t understand that she can do whatever she wants if she works hard, shows absolute dedication and proved she is capable.

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  7. Congratulations on getting into the Cadetship. My opinion is that males were unfairly disadvantaged by virgin setting a female quota. My honest opinion is that recruitment should be merit based, irrespective of gender. If that were to have occurred in virgin Cadetship, then on the balance of probabilities, the gender makeup of final chosen few would have been proportionate to the ratio of male to female applicants… and I don’t think that the ratio of applicants was 90% female. That being said, I also don’t believe that any of the final cohort were undeserving, the sheer quantity of applicants meant that the top 100 would’ve easily cut the mustard.

    Quotas should only be applied in a long term strategic plan (I.e. whenever there are two applicants of equal standing then you take the pick of the one to support your objective). Quotas should not be used for short term gain or publicity stunts.

    P.S. all the best with your aviation career, I genuinely think you deserve it having got through the selection process and hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to fly next to you one day.

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  8. I wouldn’t take it too personally (easier said than done, I know)- there are people who feel they’ve been treated pretty poorly by Virgin HR over the years (hearing nothing after interview for 18 months before getting a ‘no’ , being told they passed the tests but are not ‘enthusiastic’ enough to work at Virgin (true stories!) So I guess you can become the easy target when posting articles online – doesn’t make the comments any more appropriate but it is likely the cause of some of the sour grapes.
    Anyway, congratulations, and best of luck!

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