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The battle to beat subconscious bias

Posted 1 November 2019 · Add Comment

The sixth Women in Aviation General Assembly, which took place alongside the Airport Show in Dubai in May, was the biggest congress so far, including more than 750 attendees, 26 international speakers, 12 sponsor companies, and eight media partners. Jill Stockbridge was there.

Mervat Sultan, co-founder and president of the Middle East chapter of Women in Aviation International, was delighted at the success of the event. She said: “We received great feedback from universities, companies, and attendees – all asking for more events on the same level.”
She continued: “Our mission, at Women in Aviation, is to be a premier gateway for women in the Middle East to achieve lucrative careers and educational opportunities in the aviation and aerospace industry. As such, an event like this is a great way to deliver our message.
“Moreover, we seek to challenge negative stereotypes that have been formed about women, and prove that, given the right environment and encouragement, women can reach epitomes of success in all fields, just as well as their male counterparts.
“This year, we are particularly keen to stress the need for successful women, who have made their mark in the aviation industry, to mentor and be a source of inspiration for others aspiring to be a part of the growing aviation sector.
“Equally, we plead with any man and woman who may be just finding their feet in the field, or even just considering joining it, to come forward and utilise the resources our platform provides.”
The opening keynote address was given by His Royal Highness Prince Fahd bin Mishaal Al-Saud, chairman of the GCC Aviation Authority, and vice chairman of the board of the Saudi Aviation Club.
He spoke of the outstanding female role models in aviation history internationally and, more specifically, in the region, citing modern Arab women who have blazed a trail, such as Latifah Al-Nayyah, the first Arab woman to get a flight licence in 1933, and UAE Air Force F16 pilot, Major Mariam Al Mansouri.
However, he felt that further potential lies in the wider aviation industry.
He said: “I believe that in the fields of development, research and innovation in the aviation and aerospace sector, women will be creative, as they have been creative in the rest of aviation. We have many female role models, especially in our Arab world, who are a source of pride and have made a clear addition to, and impression on, the development of the aviation industry.”
Prince Fahd acknowledged the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) for its international and regional efforts to empower women through the adoption of a project entitled ‘the next generation of aviation professionals’. One of the project’s objectives is to increase the proportion of women employed in the technical fields of aviation to 50% by 2030.
He also pointed out regional developments. “At the International Air Congress held in Saudi Arabia last month, several recommendations were suggested to empower women and overcome difficulties in their participation in all fields related to the aviation industry,” he said.
Sponsor Bernie Dunn, president of Boeing Middle East, North Africa and Turkey, spoke of the inspiring success stories of the women present in overcoming challenges and the progress made in the field, but felt that it was still very slow. He said: “Despite data showing the benefits of greater diversity, we do not yet see the correction.”
He felt that subconscious bias, often formed in early childhood, is at the core of continued inequality. He said: “Subconscious bias remains the most difficult area to address. It is part of human nature and comes from a young age. Kids are born with a clean slate, but by the time they are six years old they have gender bias. We have to change that.”
In following the theme of mentoring and influence, the first panel discussed the role of social media in promoting the broader range of careers within aviation and redefining the image of women who work in those roles to break stereotypes.
Cecilia Bengtström, unit manager ATC, LFV Consulting, pointed out that LFV now has a range of women in senior positions, who are all high-profile, and how important this influence is. She said: “If you are a woman in a company and you don’t see women in senior positions, you don’t believe you can achieve those roles. If you see them, then there is much faster change within the organisation.”
Captain Feras Malallah, a pilot with Kuwait Airways, felt that social media was particularly relevant in the region, as he explained: “We have a message to make people more aware of the aviation industry in the Arabic language. Social media is the most effect way to deliver that message.”
Later panels spoke of the support programmes run by major aviation players, such as Air BP, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Dubai Aerospace Enterprise (DAE) and the flexibility and environment required to encourage talented women to join and remain within aviation.
However, Haifa Hamedaldean, transformation and project manager, Saudi Air Navigation Services, said: “Women in aviation is not going to happen by chance. It is important to have leadership support, but we also need to see the value in having women in the organisation – not just to fill a quota for Vision 2030, but the right people in the right jobs. Then it will trickle down and come through.”
In summing up, a number of the panellists returned to the importance of role models and mentors.
HE Captain Aisha Al Hamli, permanent representative of the UAE at ICAO and the first UAE female pilot, advised the young women in the audience to be strong. “This is a hard industry, but never give up. Build the connections that will help you reach your goals. My success came through perseverance, and because of the mentors I found – those who believed in me.”
Tina Ghataore, executive vice president-inflight connectivity solutions, Yahsat, said: “You need to network. It is most important. Look out for others who are on the path that you want to emulate and reach out to them.”
However, the final word goes to Engineer Hend Sameer Alawadhi, senior airworthiness inspector, Bahrain Civil Aviation Authority and one of the first aircraft engineers in Bahrain, who said: “If you cannot find a role model, you might be the role model.”

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