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Women Who Travel Unprecedented Journeys Alone

Reaching beyond the wildest expectations of our foremothers, women continue to create a future where the sky is no longer the limit for our careers.

I do not meet a lot of women like me. So, when I do, we become close friends fast. I left my home country solo to pursue a professional career in an unknown land, not an option any women of the generations before me could even contemplate. When I first met a female pilot aspiring to become a captain, the connection was instant. In getting to know her history I came to deeply appreciate her resilience to break into the aviation industry, a significant sacrifice personally and financially to secure a position that would allow her to obtain the qualifications she would require to solidify her career trajectory.  

Since the pandemic struck, my friend, along with countless others in the aviation industry have been grounded, both literally and figuratively. It is no easy thing for those accustomed to the boundless skies to be trapped in uncertainty and confinement. It would have been unthinkable that the worst was still to come. Then the airline executed mass retrenchments signaling the end of her dream. When I saw my friend’s face on returning from that meeting, it was heart-breaking. I asked her how she felt, and she responded ‘empty’.

While she navigated her grief, I was feeling anger. Only 3% – 6% of pilots globally are female1. Yes, please read that twice. Why is it that since 1910 when Raymonde de Laroche became the world’s first licensed female pilot we have seen so little equity? That is more than 100 years of persistent imbalance that cannot be explained away by any factor of biology, history or politics. Surely, we can no longer tolerate the rarity of a woman’s voice welcoming you onto a flight with ‘this is your captain speaking’?

My friend’s job loss signifies more than the squander of one pilot. It represents the end of a career for one of the marginalized fighting at the fringes, against all odds, to become role models for women and girls across the world. She will pick herself up – she may go back to a career in teaching, one of the six professions for which women were destined in a board game designed in 1960 called “the exciting game of career girls2. In the meantime, we are losing by the day the incremental progress we have made for women in aviation, we dishonor the legacy of Amelia Earhart and so many others who forged a path for us to follow. 

Since the pandemic struck, my friend, along with countless others in the aviation industry have been grounded, both literally and figuratively.

That does not mean we have forgotten celebrating significant moments that are etched in our memory. In 2017, Ethiopian Airlines chartered a course into history with an all-female crew3. It has subsequently done so every year, now accumulating six showcase flights to inspire women, both in Africa and across the globe4Social media allows us to record and share the unique stores of women blazing a trail in aviation. Still, it’s simply not enough.

When I look to the media more broadly, there has been much written about the uneven impact of the pandemic by gender. The widening differential in health, wealth, and happiness is acute; with women’s jobs 1.8 times as likely to be cut than jobs held by men5. Much of what is currently written focuses – rightly so – on women in the informal sector, entry–level positions, and in emerging economies. Though equally pertinent are the conversations about what this has meant for women who are breaking into niche industries and who rise beyond the wildest expectations of their foremothers.

Representation in leadership is simply not equal between men and women. Even organizations committed to diversity are held back by misconceptions that hinder noteworthy progress. Women do not have an equal shot as potential successors and are often overlooked due to inherent bias. Our research on gender diversity found that women are as well or better prepared to face the most urgent and impactful business challenges. These are flaws in our view of talent that undermine not just women but business results and economies; with speculation that expected stalls in taking new equity action could erase $5 trillion from global GDP in 2030.

Let us not be complacent, let us not become so overly enamored with the current change =opportunity rhetoric. It glosses over how diversity and inclusion are inherently perceived as in conflict with economic survival by those that make decisions at this point in time. To honor the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a truly courageous woman who fought for the equal rights of women in the United States, let us take this moment — when extraordinary precedents can be set — to create a future we can all be proud of. Where women are in the places where decisions are being made. Where every one of our women and girls, know that the sky is not the limit.

If you would like to talk to SHL about objective assessments for hiring and succession practices that can help bridge the gender divide, please reach out to us today!


1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_aviation



2 https://www.linkedin.com/posts/sarablakely27_womenshistorymonth-womensupportingwomen-activity-6640995250217250817-8iZE/

3 https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-news-from-elsewhere-47468141

4 https://airlinergs.com/ethiopian-airlines-6th-consecutive-all-women-operated-flight/

5 https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/world/2020-07-15/melinda-gates-pandemics-toll-women

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Lauren Huntington

Lauren Huntington is a registered organizational psychologist (HPCSA) with over a decade of experience working with clients, across industries, in solving their critical human capital challenges. Lauren has a focus on leadership for the future, sustainable human capital strategy, and innovation in talent management. With a passion for emerging economies, she has played a pivotal role in engaging with clients in visioning and delivering talent solutions across Africa and Asia. As the Principal Consultant for SHL South East Asia, she is currently based in Singapore enjoying hobbies including Muay Thai and Yoga.

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