ACCENTURE: A career in the aviation industry is not a career typically earmarked for women. Did you always want to be a pilot? Tell us about your ambitions and your journey.
SIRAT KANWAR: This is true. When I tell people that I'm a pilot, I get reactions ranging anywhere from awe to complete shock. My foray into aviation started pretty much as a child. My dad served as a pilot in the Indian Navy and I completely idolized him. He retired from the forces in 2007 and then joined the commercial aviation sector. I am the first woman aviator in my family, and I am proud that I got here by myself. I just hope I can keep persevering and advance in my career, making my family and myself proud, while hopefully inspiring some brilliant young minds.
A: Did you ever feel that being a woman in the aviation industry, you were treated differently than men in this field?
SK: As progressive as we now are, there's still a lot of bias, not only in the aviation industry but at an overall level too. I feel the need to be more assertive and confident in the cockpit, so that I'm taken seriously because soon I am due to take command as captain. I often find myself being compared not only to my peers but also my own father, owing to how established he is in the industry after almost two decades.
A lot of people question me about the long hours, erratic schedules and all the solo travelling that I end up doing as part of my job, saying things like "you are a girl, aren't you scared to be coming back from flights so late?" or things like "tum toh ladki ho, itni mehnat mat karo, ultimately shaadi hi toh karni hai (you're a girl, why bother working so hard? You will get married eventually…)" or my all-time favorite "ladki hoke plane chalati ho! (you're flying a plane despite being a woman)."
Why be so surprised?
A: Do you see this changing now?
SK: I believe that pilots should be employed based on their skills and not their gender. I do come across people who also resonate with this sentiment. I am fortunate to know so many men, colleagues and otherwise, to whom my gender doesn't matter, where what matters is my quality of work. And at the end of the day, I think that's all that any of us (be it men or women) are truly looking for, being recognized for our efforts and time.
I would love to see more women in aviation, and I do get a sense of pride when I see another female pilot. Not to mention the giant smile I get on my face or the immense joy I feel when I have young girls (passengers) who come to the cockpit to take a look and are awestruck when they see a female pilot, and say that they want to be in my place or that they want a picture. It is a truly gratifying feeling.
A: How does the aviation industry enable its women employees to pursue this career through their various life stages?
SK: Our education system has steadily improved over the last few decades and has thus enabled the aviation industry to progress as well. There are ample of opportunities presented to either gender. We see women in all sorts of jobs, be it ground personnel, aircraft engineers, the sales and ticketing managers, cabin crew or pilots. The Indian aviation industry ranks even higher than the US one when it comes to hiring women. Presently India has the highest number of female pilots, coming in strong at 12 percent, which is higher than the global average! This is being despite the fact that we are a highly patriarchal society.
A: What is that one piece of advice that you would give any young woman looking to enter the aviation industry as a pilot?
SK: This is a difficult question because to be a pilot is a huge commitment. It's a very competitive field with a fair share of pressure and criticism. There are long work hours and essentially no holidays, but if you love a challenge and have the passion and drive for it then the rewards and sense of achievement are definitely worth it. Plus, no other job can beat the views from our office window! Although the ratio of female pilots is slowly increasing, I feel that we could accelerate this by regularly promoting flying as a career option to young girls at school.
Simply talking to other women pilots and finding out about their experiences would be a very positive start. I would gladly talk to any women out there considering flying as a career. It is a great career, a unique one and one that certainly makes for some very interesting conversations. The best advice I can give is to work hard, especially if you're new to the job, and, eventually, no one will be questioning your ability to do the job in a male-dominated field.
A: Your mantra for success…
SK: Never lose your confidence. The moment you start second-guessing yourself is the moment you will fail. If you don't believe in yourself, then it's going to be nearly impossible to make others believe in you too. Never stop fighting the good fight and learn as much as you can to prove them all wrong.