The post-COVID-19 recovery presents the perfect opportunity for businesses to put diversity and inclusion at the core of all they do, says Sumati Sharma, co-chair of the UK Women in Aviation and Aerospace Charter and Partner at Oliver Wyman.

Her work in promoting diversity and inclusion across aviation has led to Sharma being named as the latest recipient of the AeroTime Aviation Achievement Award.

“The aviation industry and airlines connect people with others. It gives us a sense of inclusion,” Sharma tells AeroTime in an exclusive interview. 

Sharma was bitten by the travel bug as a child, and has fond memories of criss-crossing Europe on planes, trains and automobiles. 

Studying manufacturing engineering at the University of Strathclyde, Sharma was not especially struck by being one of just a handful of women. It was more recently, as she has progressed up the career ladder, that she has become acutely aware of the lack of women in leadership roles.

Sharma describes a high-level meeting when she was working at Virgin Atlantic in a role where she was instrumental in setting up the carrier’s expanded joint venture.

“We were in a negotiation meeting with 25 of the more senior people across the airline. And that moment will stay with me forever, because I was the only woman,” she remembers. “And it became a conversation during an important meeting when we were discussing commercial and financial terms.”  

Sharma knew that such conversations should not be restricted to just one organization. 

“And that's how the Women in Aviation and Aerospace Charter came about it. Because actually, this is an issue bigger than just one organization.”

WIAA Charter

The UK government’s 2017 decision to force companies with more than 250 employees to report information on their gender pay gap was another catalyst that inspired Sharma. 

She says: “I'm a data geek, I love my numbers. The pay gap information is downloadable, you can benchmark different companies, and then you can have a real, non-emotional, fact-based conversation on gender imbalance. So, I think that's been a huge change.”

One change Sharma now wants to drive is seeing organizations abide by the principles of the charter. 

“We're at such an interesting time for our industry with the restart post COVID-19,” she explains. “I want organizations to treat diversity and inclusion as a business strategy.”

Sharma explains the four principles of the charter as follows. 

Firstly, organizations need to have an executive team member responsible for diversity. Secondly, they need to set internal targets, which leads to the third principle of publicly publishing the progress made against those targets. Finally, there is an intention for the pay of the executive team to be linked to delivery of those internal targets. 

She adds: “I really hope that you know, 10 years from now, this stuff really starts to move the dial.”

ABCD OF SPONSORSHIP

Another issue close to Sharma’s heart is sponsorship, which she believes is crucial to helping the aviation industry to become more diverse. 

“I think you'll notice you'll reach a certain point in your career where your capability, your skills, working hard and delivering results, that gets you so far,” Sharma muses. “Sponsorship is important for women and people from more minority backgrounds and groups to make sure they're not left on the sidelines.”

She has also come up with some tips for those who want to sponsor someone, a philosophy Sharma calls ‘the ABCD of sponsorship’.

A is for amplification. “When sponsors amplify, they share that protegee’s accomplishments with others. It creates an increase in an audience's positive impressions of them.” 

B is for boosting. “If you've ever received or given a letter of recommendation, or benefited from being introduced to somebody, that means you're boosting your protege. You're putting at stake a bit of your own reputation to give a more of a guarantee about their future success. 

C is for connecting. “Think about how you as a sponsor can connect people.”

Last, but not least, D is for defending, which Sharma sees as one of the most effective sponsorship tactics. “It’s when a sponsor defends an audience who might be disliking or dismissing or interrupting a protege, and you work to persuade them to change their opinion.” 

Sumati Sharma

Finally, Sharma has some more general words of wisdom for anyone who wants to get into the aviation industry. 

“It's an amazing, exciting industry. So welcome. Believe in yourself, work hard, move outside your functional comfort zone. There are so many different areas, don't just stick to one, you will learn so much. And of course, find a great sponsor.”

AeroTime Aviation Achievement Award

In recognition of her dedication and commitment to promoting equality and to acknowledge her efforts to advocate for diversity and inclusion across aviation and support of the next generation of women to join the aviation sector, AeroTime CEO, Richard Stephenson OBE, was delighted to present Sumati Sharma with a coveted AeroTime Aviation Achievement Award. 

Sharma became the latest recipient of this award and joins the ranks of other aviation professionals from across five continents being recognized for their dedication and inspirational work.

Stephenson said: “Six months ago today, we launched our women in aviation campaign and presented the very first AeroTime Aviation Achievement Award. Through the work we've been doing with our campaign, we've come across so many incredible women making an impact on the industry. Our Global Executive Committee wanted to recognize the contribution that you are making to our industry and say thank you for your contribution to the aviation industry and its people.” 

Sharma said: “I feel so privileged and humbled and I am thankful to AeroTime for what you and your team do. Promoting equality in the industry is now more important than ever and I look forward to continue working with inspiring colleagues and peers on making this happen.”

Sumati Sharma, AeroTime Aviation Achievement Award