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Address unconscious bias in SA aviation industry - ACSA exec

Sep 01 2018 07:00
Carin Smith

The under-representation of women in aviation necessitated a gender summit on the topic, group executive for corporate affairs at Airports Company South Africa (ACSA), Refentse Shinners, told Fin24 on Friday. 

According to Shinners, gender equity and transformation do not receive enough attention. 

"I think now, with women entering traditionally male-dominated career paths, there is a disjuncture and some form of equity must happen. Most of it is not deliberate, but there is an unconscious bias," she said.

"As women we must make sure to address that unconscious bias - among both men and women - from the shop floor right up to executive management level."

She proposes that in traditionally male-orientated jobs - like trolley pushers at airports - design experts should be tasked to find ways of ensuring that women are not unfairly disadvantaged.

"It does not mean that women would be allowed to be less productive in such jobs - for instance, if they cannot push the same number of trolleys as a man at the same time.

"It just means the industry should cater for women in terms of the form and structure of jobs," said Shinners.

Unconscious bias

At the recent aviation industry gender summit in Cape Town, the biggest issue raised, in her view, was the need to address the existing unconscious gender bias.

"We must make sure we are always aware of this bias - not just in the aviation industry, but across all corporates," she said.

"The question is how to make our voices heard and how to encourage the girl child to explore careers they had been traditionally socialised to think of as not for them. We must ensure that they take those subjects needed for such careers at an early age. We must tell them that there is no such thing as careers only for men or only for women. They must follow their passion."

In her own career, Shinners adopted the strategy of not distancing herself too much from what she calls "the boys' club". She also ensured that she got to learn and understand the technical aspects of the traditionally male-dominated business she was working in.

"Although my role was traditionally a supporting one, I always contributed to the commercial agenda of the business. I did it by being myself and making sure I had good, open and transparent working relationships with my male and female colleagues," she said.

"If it meant calling out certain behaviours, I did so. The men usually responded very well to that. I also asked questions when I did not know something to seek clarity."

ACSA

As for ACSA itself, Shinners said the company was doing well in that regard. Almost half of the workforce consists of women.

Yet, certain male-orientated policies in the industry appear to have been entrenched over the years. Wherever she finds such policies, she changes it, according to Shinners. An example is policy in relation to new mothers.

"Equality in the workplace for women does not mean they have to become more 'masculine'. Not everything needs a masculine approach, including in the aviation industry," she said.

Her advice for young South Africans is that there are immense opportunities in the aviation industry.

"Many young people only think of pilots when the aviation industry is mentioned. This is not the only career stream, though," emphasised Shinners.

"We are in the fourth industrial revolution, where digitalisation is increasingly used, including at airports. People are needed to be part of designing and implementing technical advances - like self-check in - at airports. Then you have corporate affairs - the field I work in," she said.

"There are also a lot of stakeholders to be engaged with, and relationships to be built, to ensure people have a good experience when they fly. Accounting is another important area in aviation, as one must ensure profitability. Furthermore, shopping spaces are very important aspects at airports."

Airports also have a property portfolio aspect and the area of ensuring passengers are reconciled with their luggage - not to mention those making sure aircrafts are loaded and unloaded and those responsible for the entertainment systems.

Her advice for young South Africans is to broaden their horizons and learn about the aviation industry.

"Be curious about learning what is going on behind the scenes. Especially the girl child is under-represented there."

"The message I want to send out is that as women, we need to reaffirm ourselves and not shrink when it is expected of us to play a lesser role. We need to call out discriminatory behaviour, be it in how we are treated or about comments made. That is how we will change the dial in the industry."

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acsa  |  sa economy  |  transformation  |  youth  |  womens wealth  |  gender
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