Little girls' dreams of being a pilot are nothing to joke about...

2018-08-09 16:30 - Selene Brophy
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South Africa is hosting the first-ever Global Aviation Gender Summit.

Some 650 top-ranking representatives of the aviation industry, including airlines, aircraft manufacturers and airports, as well as governments from across the world are in Cape Town to chart a new path toward the realisation of equality and gender transformation in aviation.

Within the South African sector, less than 20% are women. Yes, in 2018. And even less licensed pilots within SA Civil Aviation, with only about 10% being female.

But SA is not unique in this gender disparity issue, according to Airports Company South Africa's (Acsa) Chief Operating Officer Fundi Sithebe. 

Fundi says the huge gender gap exists across many parts of the aviation industry but mostly in SA because young South African girls were not challenged or confident about their place in the industry.  

"In my personal experience around women in aviation it is just about getting into the space. We didn't grow up from an early age thinking we were going to be pilots or COOs. We were just not aware of the opportunities and I guess because of how we were brought up, it wasn't necessarily a space where you wanted to channel females," she says. 

SEE: Women urged to reach for the skies at first ever Global Aviation Gender Summit

In this particular space the numbers are so disparate; the numbers are not a true reflection of what society is, she states. 

"A little closer to home within in our organisation Acsa, where there has been a deliberate drive for inclusion of women, we are at 37% female, that's from middle-management through to executive level. And even then, we still have a long way to go. But there has got to be a deliberate drive to see it exceed 50%." 

"Right now the pool is very limited. My observation from my career and many women within in the industry is that we either got into it by some mistake or just by luck.

"We have to start growing a grassroots level awareness, so that when we get to this level there is exposure, there is awareness and there is confidence that they really can be successful. 

Fundi is convince the sooner we can inspire young girls the better. 

'Then I knew, flying is my thing'

"I was fortunate enough in the mid-80s to get on an aeroplane. Think about this in the Apartheid era, I was able to get on an aeroplane with my aunt, we went to Durban. Then I knew, flying is my thing.

"But like I say I had to get into an aeroplane, otherwise I would never have experienced it.

"I then decided I want to be a pilot, I then went overseas and then I decided I wanted to be an astronaut. From there I decided maybe I want to be in the air force. So, my head, after the experience, was really focused on being in a plane. 

"I remember sitting in class in high school when I said I wanted to be a pilot. Funnily enough there was a male student with me in my class who said the same thing. He was taken seriously, they gave him high fives and said, 'Well done'.

"When I mentioned the same thing, they actually thought it was a joke. In fact, they looked at me as if I was a little bit bizarre. 

'They thought I was joking about being a pilot'

But her drive to be in the industry wouldn't go quietly. Fundi says even though she wasn't successful in being accepted for a pilot training programme, through deliberate wanting to and her own sheer will, she found a sponsor for her own private pilot’s license. 

"That is how I got into aviation and I've been in aviation in different formats, I say probably for about 10 to 15 years now.  And through this journey I've made a very deliberate decision that there are other eight-year-old, seven-year-olds who need to have their interest piqued like mine was.

As a result, Fundi is especially passionate about the work she does with the Girl fly programme in Africa.

"We go out and inspire girl children, the youth, around aviation opportunities, so that people don't necessarily get left out if they are not able to get on an aeroplane for whatever reason."

'Challenge the status quo'

Fundi stresses that over the next couple of days there must be a "deliberate implementation to challenge the status quo".

"We can sit and say these are the challenges and this is how we overcome but we have to have a proper road map, not matter how small - to avoid having the same conversations over and over again". 

She remains passionate about the youth as a key solution to the gender issue, saying, "We have to start much earlier."

ALSO SEE: Rise of the Matriarch: All-women expedition across southern Africa tackles poaching head on

Firmly challenging the status quo for the past 26 years is Zuks Ramasia. Born in Vosloorus in Boksburg and based in Gauteng, the South African Airways General Manager for Operations has a tough area of influence and responsibility - ranging from overseeing flight operation and in-flight services, security and quality audits to mention a few.

She recalls being an impressionable young flight attendant, when she considered applying for a management position in operations. 

"I had never seen a woman in that office, but I though why not. Being an operations position, which was historically male - Zuks says even her interview panel were worried about her being a woman. 

I told them I know I can do it, hence I have put my hand up. I was prepared to do what the other male colleagues were doing and always approached my job as if I was representing all women within the industry. I learned a lot and for the sake of women I didn't want to make any mistake that would reflect badly or give them a reason to say, 'See what we've done, we put a woman there'," says Zuks. 

Added to that she is deeply embedded in nurturing and boosting the confidence of other women in the industry, to help them see that it is possible to do the same job as a man. 

"With every vacancy I have made sure I nurture women and expose them, I done this even until where I am today."

'I'm always representing other women'

Zuks admits, the industry can be intimidating, but says, "You research and work hard.  I'm always representing other women in what is considered a man's job. It's a job like any other job."

She states that the gender bias is especially apparent in operations control centres, where men are mostly responsible for the aircraft movement, cabin and pilot movement.

When she applied she questioned her own ability but affirmed to herself, "It requires complex decisions, but these men are guided by policy and they learned that knowledge. Why should it be different for me. Nobody's is born knowing what they know."

SEE: Women in travel: How to grow your travel start-up, despite female entrepreneurship challenges  

Attending the summit has shown Zuks that South African women aspiring for a career in aviation are not alone. 

"Sometimes you think this is your challenge only, but you realise it is a global thing. This is a stubborn environment where nobody wants to change, but the minister of transport has said she is going to make sure in her capacity that this gender stereotypes are eradicated.  It's up to us, the executives, the boards - that we prepare people from school, we show the girls they can do it."

Zuks is proud of SAA's partnership with Boeing for the Sivulindlele truck, meaning Open the pathways in Nguni.  It allows a mobile cockpit and cabin experience to tour the nine provinces, allowing us to expose the youth to the industry. When you don't know about something, how can you be inspired?"

Also, on the horizon to raise awareness is the third all-women flight to Brazil taking place on 22 August, with female crew positioned in the cockpit, through to the cabin and ground crew.

"We can create awareness to say it is doable."

Summit details:

  • Date: 8 – 10 August 2018
  • Time: 9:00 – 16:30
  • Venue: CTICC, Cape Town, South Africa
  • Programme: Click here

SEE: Women pilots fly against cockpit prejudices.

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