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.
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!