Navigating Aviation as a Woman – 5 Things to Keep in Mind

I have loved working in Aviation, becoming a pilot was one of the best things I have ever done. As a woman I have faced some unique challenges, some of which felt really hard at the time, but I was able to overcome them by acting professionally and keeping my eye on the long term goal. My biggest takeaways?

  • Trust your instinct
  • Have faith in yourself and cultivate self worth
  • Use your voice and stand up for yourself
  • Don’t tolerate mistreatment
  • Have fun and keep the good people close!

Read on to learn a little bit more about me, my journey to becoming a professional pilot, and why I think these five things are important.

woman pilot
Gaining a Turbine endorsement allowed me to fly the mighty Cessna C-208 Caravan! One of my all time favorite aircraft to fly

Introduction

Hi, I’m Laura, and I actually never thought I’d be working as a full-time pilot! If you asked me at the end of my school years, being a pilot wouldn’t have even been an option; but here I am, and now I can’t imagine doing anything else. I have always loved aviation – I grew up in Merimbula NSW and spent many afternoons after school with my Dad in his hangar where he runs his small aircraft maintenance business. Fast forward to today, I am pilot in command of the Cessna C208 Caravan where I fly FIFO out of Broome, and looking forward to one day taking my next leap in my career into regular passenger transport (RPT) airline services.

Navigating Aviation as a Woman – 5 Things to Keep in Mind

I am very lucky to know so many amazing, talented, intelligent & driven female pilots who are doing awesome things in our industry. However, a lot of the time, female pilots have to work that little bit harder to receive the same recognition or to be ‘taken seriously’. Unfortunately for us women, we are programmed since birth to think that we should be quiet, follow the lead of men, and always second-guess and censor ourselves. I turn 30 next year and am only just recently really starting to break out of this thinking, and unfortunately it really still is an issue in 2020 in many facets of our society. However, fortunately, things have improved a lot. There have been countless women that have paved the way for us, and countless men who have put their support behind their female counterparts.

For me, personally, my father is one of the best feminists I know, and he doesn’t let this cause any insecurity in his masculinity. To me, he has set the standard in how I believe I should be treated (that is, with fairness and without discrimination… nothing crazy!). Feminism is by definition ‘equality’, so if you’re one of those great guys who think we should just all treat each other the same, then congratulations, you’re a feminist! This is not a bad thing, and the word ‘feminist’ should not be scary to you. I have a very large group of close male friends and colleagues who I know see me for my piloting and personality and not for my gender, and I’m so grateful for them.

For women in aviation, there are a lot of things that men will never see or witness but that women encounter regularly. It’s not always necessarily the stereotypical discrimination that you may think, but just the little things that males don’t generally have to even consider – having people express shock or surprise that you’re their pilot, being questioned, being cut off or interrupted when talking, not being listened to (or, even worse, when you’re not listened to but when your male counterpart says the same thing, everyone hears it straight away!), experiencing the joys of ‘mansplaining’, having assumptions being made about you, and missing out on opportunities that your male counterparts may seem to get without hesitation. This is not exhaustive, but here are five things to begin helping to navigate the male-dominated world of aviation.

Trust your instinct and your training

Hopefully you are lucky enough to receive training with a mature, knowledgeable and equal-opportunistic instructor who will treat you with the same respect, trust, and level of expectation as the guys. Don’t worry – they do exist! I have been very lucky to have had both male and female instructors who I have never felt any different flying with. However, if you start to find yourself second-guessing your abilities or defaulting to believing that a guy might know more than you just because, well, he’s a guy – nip that in the bud.

woman pilot

I have been caught out numerous times where I assume that a guy knows what he’s doing because of his confidence and self-assurance, yet it turns out that I’m the one who’s correct. Always trust your training, your knowledge and your instinct; don’t second-guess your studying and training just because you may not be as outwardly confident as your male counterparts. You are just as capable; own it.

Have faith in yourself; cultivate self-worth

This is something that so many women struggle with, not only in aviation, but across many industries. I have female friends in medicine, healthcare, law, management, you name it – women who are so intelligent and strong, yet they still often doubt their abilities when they are just as (or sometimes more) experienced and qualified as their male counterparts. A lot of men may not realise that women are often subconsciously raised to see themselves as weaker or lesser than men, and unfortunately it does impact performance sometimes even if we don’t mean it. Societal norms are a powerful thing. For me personally, I remember in some of my more intensive IFR training, some of the feedback I received was that I wasn’t assertive enough with my decision making. An issue that many women face is the level of assertiveness to express; if you’re too assertive, you’re bossy or ‘bitchy’. Not enough and you’re weak.

It can be difficult to find the balance. It’s quite hard to do but I’ve slowly been learning to trust more in my abilities and experiences, and to be confident in decisions. The saying of faking it until making it is not that silly – make a decision, have a reason for making that decision, back yourself up and own it. If you’re wrong, that’s okay – another learning experience. Take the feedback and do better next time. My problem in the past was that I would reply to every question so tentatively because I was so scared of being seen as wrong or incompetent or not good enough, yet all that did was make me look unsure and unconfident. It takes practice, some courage, and acceptance that you may be wrong about something, but over time you will grow in confidence and a natural level of assertiveness will come with that. Make sure you surround yourself with people who will support you and back you up; more on this later.

Using your voice and standing up for yourself

A lot of us, men and women alike, don’t particularly like confrontation. This can lead to issues in being treated badly, taken advantage of, or just plain bullied. It’s always easy to shrug and say “well, just stand up for yourself!” but aviation is that little bit different. We’re a small community, egos get in the way, and sometimes things get thrown around the rumour mill. Unfortunately how you handle issues and who you do or don’t get along with in the industry has the potential to shape your future career. But it’s not all doom and gloom – it’s just a matter of knowing how to handle different personalities, treat everyone exactly how you would like to be treated, and know how to stand up for yourself.

how to become a pilot
remember your ‘C’s – Stay Cool, Calm, Confident, Collected and in Command!

I’m certainly guilty of sometimes over-analysing a situation or imagining that the other person thinks badly of me, but so much of this can be mitigated with communication. Many things can be solved by just having a good chat about things and laying it all out – not only in aviation, but in all areas of your life. If you’re not happy about something, don’t just stew on it. Figure out what your end goal is and work backwards from there, speak to peers and mentors for advice, write it down in a letter/report/email – communicate. I have done this myself during a rough patch at one of my jobs, where I wrote a small, neutral report on the issues I was experiencing and why I wasn’t completely happy. I went over it with my chief pilot, we discussed it all, he was able to find some solutions and we were able to resolve the issues and move on. It also meant I came out of it feeling a lot more positive and that I’d been heard.

Not tolerating mistreatment

Again, mistreatment can happen to everyone, and it’s especially hard to figure out boundaries sometimes in situations such as a first job, a new job, or any situation where the end goal is essentially glaring so bright that you forget to take care of yourself in the present. A lot of this comes back to the previous point, but ultimately it’s important to keep in mind your own boundaries and happiness. And if you don’t know what your personal boundaries are – have a think about it, get some advice from peers and mentors, and decide on some. This is definitely not limited to women only, but coming back to that earlier point, I know a lot of women feel like they have to put up with more, be polite and courteous and not rock the boat, be seen and not heard, etc. just to be able to get ahead in aviation.

I’ve been in a situation before where I basically quit a job on the spot. I was filling in for a few weeks for a pilot who had just left, on the other side of the country, and there was a problem we had in the final week that I was there which, while related to the job, was not my error. Unfortunately the operator decided it was my error, and I was given a bit of a rough time (including receiving a few choice insults and refusing to talk to me properly about the issue). I didn’t appreciate being treated like that, and not having a boss that had my back, so decided it was best to part ways. It wasn’t necessarily ideal, but I knew my own personal boundaries and decided to act on them Looking back, it was definitely the right decision even though it was difficult at the time.

Having fun and keeping the good people close

At the end of the day, so much of your experience will be based on your attitude and how you choose to approach things. My biggest saviour working in aviation has been keeping myself surrounded with good people, friends and mentors who have your back, will listen to your problems and give advice, and keep your spirits up when the going gets tough. You can also be this person to others. I’ve made some incredible friends over the years at various flying jobs, and I absolutely wouldn’t be where I am today without their support.

women pilot
Honestly, one of my main reasons for flying in William Creek was purely for the canine companions!

So make sure to keep good company; support and be supported. Remember that the industry is small, so the people you get to know now will likely become lifelong friends or mentors. You will become someone’s mentor one day too! Get involved with aeroclubs, aviation groups, the Australian Women Pilots Association; grow your circle, work hard and work smart, always keep learning, treat everyone with kindness and respect, and hopefully the rest of your career will fall into place pretty comfortably.

Conclusion

I have loved working in Aviation, becoming a pilot was one of the best things I have ever done. As a woman I have faced some unique challenges, some of which really sucked but I was able to overcome them by acting professionally and keeping my eye on the long term goal. My biggest takeaways?

  • Trust your instinct
  • Have faith in yourself and cultivate self worth
  • Use your voice and stand up for yourself
  • Don’t tolerate mistreatment
  • Have fun and keep the good people close!

Laura Koerbin

Laura is a commercial pilot with several years of GA experience under her belt. From being brought up around her Dad’s aircraft maintenance hangar in Merimbula NSW to working and flying all around the Australian Outback, she has a keen love for all things GA, and loves to share the passion. Laura has flown as a casual ferry pilot in NSW, scenic and charter pilot in Outback SA, skydive pilot, and currently flies charter and FIFO operations out of Broome WA. Laura is especially passionate about encouraging people, especially more young women, to get in the left hand seat and give flying a go.

Laura Koerbin has 2 posts and counting. See all posts by Laura Koerbin

One thought on “Navigating Aviation as a Woman – 5 Things to Keep in Mind

  1. Hi Laura, thank-you for posting. I have just finished year 12 and have always wanted to be a pilot but just honestly don’t know where to start. I had heard it was a very male dominated industry and that it would be hard to get hired as a female, so it was great to hear your story

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