• Thursday, July 25, 2024
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BusinessDay

Blurring the gender lines: African women are taking to the skies

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The labor market is hardly recognizable from what it was fifty years ago. Back then, the roll call of industries featured a vast majority of men in top job positions, with women playing the role of homemakers or acting as support staff in the office. Fast forward to the 21st century and the picture is beginning to look slightly more balanced. While it can be argued that much more needs to change, women are today occupying top jobs and outnumber their male counterparts in some industries. Even in Africa, women are taking the bull by the horn and playing effective and exemplary roles in the public and private sectors. However, one area that doesn’t seem to have experienced this revolution yet is the aviation industry.

The aviation industry is unique. The inherent dangers of airborne transportation makes it important that only highly trained individuals with a record of competence should be allowed to pilot an aircraft. This notwithstanding, there is nothing that says that women cannot be trusted to do the job. But there are reasons why the industry has been so male dominated. Almost as soon as they were invented, airplanes were used for military purposes. It then followed that the male dominated military became the hub of flight related activities. Military trained pilots naturally transited to commercial airlines. After World War 1, female pilots began to take to the skies. Soon enough, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), a paramilitary aviation organization, was born. It was the pioneering organization for civilian female pilots, employed to fly military aircraft by the United States Air Force during World War II.

Following the first forays of women into the aviation industry, a lot of milestones have since been achieved. Recently, Ethiopian Airlines celebrated women by dispatching its first-ever flight operated by an all-female crew. The flight which took off from Addis Ababa, landed successfully in Bangkok, Thailand, driving to the fore the campaign to celebrate women and promote African women empowerment. The crew included pilots, flight engineers and cabin executives on-board, as well as ground staff who were all women. This has been commended as a testament to the capabilities of women to deliver on such jobs without the slightest hitch. Locally, the question has been asked whether Nigerian female pilots can achieve this same feat. Well, it is interesting to note that Nigerian female pilots have already made the same achievement. In April 1, 2009, Aero Contractors launched a similar all-female crew on a flight from Lagos to Osubi airstrip near Warri. Captain Bolaji Agbelusi along with First Officer Yop Wash, Cabin Executives Jennifer Uloma Shodeinde and Catherine Ekanem oversaw the flight. Though there is still a long way to go, Nigeria seems to be developing a new generation of female pilots, despite the many obstacles.

Generally speaking, the life of a pilot can be quite tasking and arduous. Apart from the rigorous training involved, being a pilot often involves a lot of travelling and time away from family. The profession requires enormous sacrifice from the women who are in it. In light of this, it is important to honor women who have decided to brave the many challenges and thrive in this field while maintaining their family lives. Such plaudits may be seen by some as mere token gestures, but they are nevertheless essential as a way of encouraging younger generations of women who may be interested in the field but lack role models to follow. A look at the history of Nigeria’s female pilots will provide that much needed inspiration to any female who feels overly daunted by the prospect of failing to secure a pilot license. Indeed, there are many success stories to draw inspiration from.

Captain Chinyere Kalu, is the first female commercial airline pilot in Nigeria. She trained as a Commercial Pilot and took several aviation courses in the UK, the USA, and Nigeria. She says that her decision to start a career in aviation was spurred by her adventurous aunt, who was known for travelling overseas. Recently, the Nigerian Air Force also decorated its first female pilot, Blessing Liman. Her achievement was hailed by former president Goodluck Jonathan as part of the Government’s commitment to ensuring affirmative action in favor of women who are not highly represented in certain fields.

Younger ladies have also followed this trend. Imoleayo Adebule is one of Nigeria’s youngest female pilots. Now 26, she became a pilot at 23, having graduated at the top of her class at the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology, Zaria. Rosemary Sugh is the first female pilot from Benue State. The 21-year old graduate of the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology, Zaria. Another very impressive story is that of 15-year-old Kimberly Anyadike, an American of Nigerian descent, who flew a single-engine plane cross-country from Compton, California to Virginia, U.S.A. Anyadike learned to fly at age 12! Also, in June 2015 it was reported that there are now 127 active female pilots in Nigeria out of a total of 2,958 licensed pilots in the country. Although this represents only about 4.3% of the entire population, it is encouraging to note that more young women are taking up the profession.

Developing a vibrant economy that competes with the industrialized nations of the world requires the ability to put a vast section of the population to work in sectors like aviation that are technical and highly specialized. A situation where women, who are about half of the population, do not participate actively in such fields is not ideal. Generally, women are usually not encouraged to go into fields like engineering and mathematics. In many universities, men overwhelmingly dominate the departments where these courses are taught. Getting women to take up these technical professions should start from a more liberalized way of thinking about who should work in any profession. This will make working in the aviation industry to become one of those occupations deemed acceptable for both men and women to engage in. Men are today increasingly taking up traditionally female roles like in hairdressing, catering and make-up, while women are becoming mechanics, bus drivers and I.T programmers. This means that women can now bring their own unique qualities into these fields and contribute to national development in tangible ways. This will yield enormous benefits for the economy as a whole.

MUNA ONUZO