In 2022, why do I still have to write about equality in aviation?

Richard Stephenson
CEO of AeroTime

As a kid, I was used to seeing the typical patriarchal and matriarchal roles on show across every generation of my family.  I remember my grandfather sitting at his table watching the horse racing and smoking his cigar while my grandmother busied herself in the kitchen, always with 100 household chores to complete, as she served him his latest request.

In the 1970s this was the norm, and I am sure this informal education played a role in my general approach to life for many subsequent years.

However, as I think back now and consider all of the formidable women who have played a role in my life – those who shaped me, those who educated me, those who picked me up when I fell over (physically and metaphorically), those who guided me in the arts of politics, leadership and life – I am ashamed for not challenging the status quo much sooner. 

I know other people who feel the same way.  And so now is our time to make amends and strive for true equality.  We must look ahead to a year in the future (not too distant I hope) when I, and those who follow me of any gender, don’t have to think about how to write an editorial like this because there is no longer any need.

Naïve? Wishful thinking? Not in my lifetime? Maybe.  Who knows?  But I do know that I have a responsibility in this job to help move the dial as far as I can while I have the platform to do so.

Since I joined the aviation industry, my role to help promote equality in the industry has been made easy because of the amazing women working in all aspects of the sector.  Dame Deirdre Hutton was a force to be reckoned with as the chair of the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for 10 years, and an inspirational figure in so many ways.  In my years working with Deirdre, I saw the organisation change for the better and I admired a style of leadership that couldn’t fail to encourage everyone while keeping a resolute focus on doing the right thing at all times.

On International Women’s Day I flew from Spain to Finland.  At both ends of that journey were formidable women in my life. In Spain I attended the 70th birthday party of a political mentor; the woman who advised me throughout my political life and helped me through the good, the bad and the ugly. I wouldn’t have made it without her.  She would also be the woman who supported me in my move to the aviation industry. At the other end of the journey was another political heavyweight who had served at the highest ranks of government but was always available for friendship, advice and fun, even though we represented different political hues. What better people to be in the company of on that auspicious day?

I boarded the aircraft with a secret hope that Finnair would provide two female pilots to mark the day. But I was disappointed when the captain made an announcement just prior to departure. It was a man. As we came into land after a four-hour flight during which I worked exclusively on our Women in Aviation campaign, the first officer’s voice broke through.  It was a woman.  I took this as a small but significant sign that our campaign should continue. It felt strangely emotional: here was true equality in action on the flight deck.

In the past week, we’ve marked International Women’s Day by celebrating more amazing women. In the past year, the AeroTime team has shone a spotlight on a handful of the incredible women working across our industry. What started as a week-long campaign has now run for a year and it shows no signs of ending or even slowing down. In fact, it is picking up speed and rightly so.

Nevertheless, there is still so much work to be done. As our deputy editor (and pilot), Victoria Bryan, reported last week, only 5% of the global pilot workforce is female and the number taking up training roles are even fewer. Among aerospace engineers, women made up just 12.6% in 2020, my colleague Vyte Klisauskaite wrote. The gender disparity stretches across all parts of aviation from pilots, air traffic controllers, and engineers to senior management across most aviation and aerospace companies. 

We were also thrilled to have the opportunity to recognise a number of incredibly deserving and inspirational women around the world and I want to congratulate and thank all of them.

Firstly, in order to recognize dedicated aviation professionals whose ongoing efforts support, promote, encourage and inspire people across our industry, the AeroTime Global Executive Committee has announced the creation of a new recognition program called ‘Aviation Champions’. These advocates and campaigners will be recognized for their dedication to the industry and for their ongoing efforts to support, promote, encourage and inspire people across our industry

Australian pilot Hunter McLeod, space architect and founder of AAKA Space Studio Aastha Kacha, and Amanda Kandawire, who set up a business selling educational toys which aim to interest children in STEM subjects, were announced as the first three Aviation Champions and I am delighted to have them all on board.  More Aviation Champions will be named in the coming weeks.

We have also recognised five new AeroTime Aviation Achievement Award recipients: Captain Kgomotso Phatsima, who became one of Botswana’s first female military pilots; Jill Meyers, who has been recognized for her passion for mentoring and outreach; Susan C. Friedenberg, for promoting and advocating for aviation safety during her three-decades-long career in the business aviation sector; Nikki Malcom, the CEO & executive director of Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance, who has spent years encouraging people to pursue a career in the aerospace and defence sectors.

And Tammera L Holmes who told us the story of her fight to break into the aviation world. She talks about wanting to join an industry that “didn’t look like me”. She tells of the barriers she faced and overcame and how she now diverts her energy into helping the next generation break into an industry that is looking more and more like the society it represents every day.

It’s hard listening to stories like Tammera’s, but it’s important these stories are heard.

It’s shameful to think that this experience was the norm in recent history. Tammera is younger than me and she tells this story with clarity and precision which shows me she can still feel the raw emotion of those painful days and knock-backs as if they were yesterday.

But it wasn’t yesterday. It was long enough ago for us to now be able to celebrate and acknowledge Tammera’s contribution and dedication to our industry, as well as her work to encourage and inspire the next generation of women and students from underprivileged communities to seek careers into aviation. I salute Tammera, and all of our Award recipients, for their perseverance, resilience, determination and stoicism – qualities that resonate around the aviation industry and which have served them all, and their numerous mentees, very well.

Thank goodness for all the Tammeras, Jills, Susans, Nikkis, Kgomotsos, Hunters, Amandas and Aasthas (not to mention some of their male allies) who continue to break down the barriers that are fast becoming relics – but nowhere near fast enough.

Some of their past experiences are best consigned to the mindset of my grandfather back in the 1970s. It was wrong then and certainly has no place in 2022. Most people realise this but those who don’t have no place in our future industry.

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