Breaking the bias for women in aviation

Avatar for Natasha McKentyBy Natasha McKenty | March 8, 2022

Estimated reading time 9 minutes, 56 seconds.

Recognized each year on March 8, International Women’s Day (IWD) aims to unite female voices, celebrating empowerment and achievement while encouraging those who witness bias to take action. Its origins date back to the early 1900s, calling on women across the globe to collectively #BreakTheBias (which also happens to be this year’s theme).

Yet, women continue to bear a weight that their male counterparts aren’t often subjected to. And in aviation specifically, the stagnant statistics speak volumes: less than six percent of the pilot workforce (worldwide) are female. 

#BreakTheBias is this year’s IWD theme. IWD Photo

Nisha Venkatesh is a Communication Electronics Engineering Officer (CELE) with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) who also volunteers with the Canadian Women in Aviation Association (CWIA). Despite her busy schedule, and in anticipation of IWD, Venkatesh sat with Skies to share her personal experiences as well as her insights on some of the challenges that women in aviation continue to face. 

She considers herself fortunate to be one of a few women to occupy the role of CELE Officer, admitting her introduction to aviation happened after she joined the Air Force as a telecommunications person, and wasn’t planned.

“I’m part of the strategic team; it’s a really fun job,” she said. “I get to look at culture, data, and emerging trends and come up with ideas and advice on what the future of the Air Force, as an institution, could look like.”

Venkatesh (right) at the 2021 NLAF Gala. Nisha Venkatesh Photo

She keeps a “healthy network of female colleagues” with whom to share “common friction points” and how to change them.

“In the last couple of years, after the social awakening of 2020 . . . and diversity and inclusion being launched to the forefront of almost every conversation you see in the industry, I’ve had much more opportunities to grow that network and rely on it,” said Venkatesh.

In 2017, Venkatesh was selected to attend the CWIA conference from within her unit. The event inspired her to volunteer.

“For the last five years, I’ve been a big part of our event programming as the program director in 2019, and I’m one of the two co-chairs for the 2022 conference.”

CWIA is a community of women who work together to ensure a future where female successes aren’t viewed as anomalies, especially in STEM-related roles.

In her role as supporting partner with the association, Venkatesh said it’s about sharing the “small wins” and offering role models that women from all backgrounds can “see themselves in.”

And despite the pandemic, CWIA has grown, thanks to converting pre-existing in-person programming to virtual opportunities, as well as the launch of programs like CWIA Circles, CWIA Calls, Keynote Conversation, and Approaching Finals.

In 2017, Venkatesh was selected to attend the CWIA conference from within her unit. The event inspired her to volunteer. Nisha Venkatesh Photo

“[Approaching Finals] is this group of student pilots, all of whom are women and many of whom are ethnically diverse,” explained Venkatesh. “[They] started the program, a community of support for women who are also student pilots.

“There’s a need for visible representation from a cross-section of experiences because we don’t all have this one universal common experience,” she continued. “And we try to fill that at CWIA by putting diverse role models and speakers in front of our audience, during our various programs.” 

Aiming to be the “sparkplugs of change,” the group held the inaugural (virtual) 2021 CWIA Symposium. The overwhelming support surpassed their expectations. 

“[Due to the] massive downturn in aviation operations throughout the pandemic, our community was really thirsty for the connection,” she reflected.

Female aviators came together to connect with mentors, build friendships, share experiences, and empower growth like never before.

The overwhelming support of the inaugural (virtual) 2021 CWIA Symposium surpassed expectations. CWIA Image

The event took place over three days, highlighting the stories of women from diverse backgrounds across the aviation sector. The event’s success enabled a sizeable donation from the proceeds of ticket sales to Indigenous communities.

“We had a 90 percent engagement rate, which is, from my understanding, very rare for digital events.”

Over the past year, two new alliances were formed, Canadian Aviation Pride (CAP) and Black Aviation Professionals Network (BAPN).

“[The goal with CAP was] to look at how LGBTQ+ communities and the community of women intersected, [because these] communities inherently have a lot of overlap. Gender identity falls under LGBTQ+ as well.”

Indigenous flight crew, speakers at the 2019 CWIA conference. CWIA Photo

Working with BAPN, which was founded during the pandemic, meant CWIA could explore and amplify stories of Black women who have experienced “discrimination based on race, ethnicity, or immigration status.” 

“We’re very proud of these new partnerships,” said Venkatesh.

When asked what challenges women continue to face, Venkatesh thoughtfully considered her response. In her opinion, the biggest obstacle is “internalized misogyny.” 

This year’s CWIA conference is scheduled in Edmonton, Alberta, from June 22 – 25, 2022. CWIA Image

“I think it’s important to acknowledge that there are still places in Canada where girls and young women are discouraged from careers in aviation because of this notion that it is a masculine trade,” she said. “And that’s even before you start layering on a cultural context. 

“This is from stories that I’ve heard first-hand from young women who are maybe 24 or 25. These barriers are something we must address. I also think if we want to diversify aviation, we have to get serious about providing financial support to these communities.”

This year’s CWIA conference, appropriately titled “Superheroes in Aviation,” is scheduled in Edmonton, Alberta, from June 22 to 25, 2022. 

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