“Everyone, especially every woman, should’ve liberty of being themselves”

Shweta Singh, India’s first woman CFOI at DGCA, speaks on breaking that glass ceiling

geetanjali

Geetanjali Minhas | April 8, 2024 | Mumbai


#Career   #Aviation   #Gender   #Society  
(Image courtesy: Shweta Singh)
(Image courtesy: Shweta Singh)

In February this year, yet another glass ceiling was broken, when Captain Shweta Singh became the first woman chief flight operations inspector (CFOI) at the Directorate General of Civil Aviation.

Back then, in a social media post, Captain Singh had written: “The opportunity humbles me because this historic achievement places me as the first female in this distinguished job, breaking down boundaries and paving the way for future generations. … This is not only a personal triumph but a significant leap towards fostering inclusivity and excellence in the Indian aviation sector.”

Amid her hectic schedule, she still found time this week to reply to several questions from Geetanjali Minhas of Governance Now. Here are the edited excerpts of the interview:

Did you always wanted to become a pilot?     
Growing up through the years we moved locations frequently with my father [the late Brigadier H.C. Singh] being an army officer. This exposed me to diverse cultures, locations and helped me adapt to new environments easily. As a family, this taught us to be open-minded in acceptance of new things, religions, cultures, people, professionals, etc. Like most Indian parents, my parents too wanted me to become a doctor or an engineer, but it was the wide expanse of the limitless sky that really fascinated and attracted me. And ever since, I’ve worked hard towards that dream and strived to fulfil it to not only make my family proud but to also feel a sense of achievement within myself and to take the progress of the country to further heights.

Please take us through your professional journey so far.
I underwent flying training in USA and joined Jet Airways after coming back to India. At Jet Airways, I grew from Trainee First Officer to Commander, Check Pilot, Instructor and Examiner on Boeing 737. I was flying to critical airports such as Leh and Kathmandu apart from other domestic and international destinations. Then I joined DGCA in 2014 as Deputy Chief Flight Operation Inspector. At that time, India was downgraded by FAA [Federal Aviation Administration of the US] and my role was instrumental in [working thrugh] new regulations, procedures and re-certification of airlines which helped us to get the upgraded category back.

I played an important role in bringing Boeing Max back into service. I also navigated and steered International audits like FAA and ICAO to enhance India’s score. My main agenda is to ensure that the systems are more robust and continuous which enable us to make dynamic improvements with stakeholders whenever needed.

Can you recall any challenges at work?
Flying safely and having a safe landing is something to be extremely grateful to God for, because it involves many variables constantly changing and affecting the circumstances. As a trainer, when you are training, the weather may not be good and every time we fly, the situation will be different. Some flights are very challenging. Every pilot goes through challenges. I also have had challenges during some of my flights. One incident that I can easily recollect was in Ahmedabad at night when the weather radar went off and at the same time, the speed breaks got stuck and we could not make an approach and we were in a wind shear condition. We used our intelligence and requested ATC to help us and position us behind another aircraft that had functional weather radar as we used every possible resource to have a safe landing. We learn greatly from such experiences and strive to do better in the future.  

Did you face any initial hiccups or discrimination in your career?
Entering into any male dominant industry has its own challenges and road blocks. Aviation being one of them is no different at all. Despite rigorous trainings, surpassing every benchmark, working with higher standards than male colleagues, there have been times when you feel subdued.

However, times are changing and with more and more women coming in, a level-playing field is being established. There is more compassion and acceptance towards women joining the field.

Do you see any change in the number of women at work and in senior positions?
Yes, there has been a spike over the years, definitely. There has been a substantial increase in representation of women in aviation in India. We have 15% women pilots [which is higher] as compared to global ratios. However, there is still a lack in women representation in senior positions. We still need to work towards that.

Not many women have been able to break the glass ceiling in the aviation sector; we can literally count them on our fingertips. But now with more women joining in as compared earlier, efforts and support have also increased. In fact, recently a vacancy circular had been put out, I was part of the hiring panel and we have taken in 60% women in the roles of Flight Operations Inspectors at DGCA in that particular batch. Now that has been quite a game-changer. However, it will definitely take some time to have a level-playing field. But it is very important to have women in senior positions, see even more growth and progress and not to lag behind male counterparts.

How do you see women performing at work?  
Shweta Singh: Women are amazing at multi-tasking and come with great skills of having a good work life balance. Most women are very diligent and honest in their work and they perform well. Even when women have kids at home, they will put in extra hours at work when required and manage to balance their work, with good results.

With more women joining aviation now, have their male colleagues become more accepting of them at workforce?
Men are gradually beginning to accept that the male hierarchy is being broken down with more women joining the workforce. It’s a positive step in the right direction towards development and growth.

As the Chief Flight Operations Inspector, what are your duties?
As CFOI, we have to keep an eye and do surveillances throughout the country. FOIs under me are in charge of surveillance of all airlines across the country, training organisations, simulator etc. I take a daily, weekly, monthly report and stay updated on everything that is going on apart from combating unforeseen circumstances. We also do certification, pilot training, oversight of pilot training, oversight of cabin crew training, audits of all airlines, handling of international audits, licensing, questioning banks for DGCA, vetting and making of question banks, besides dealing with major international and domestic issues. We check the compliance and implementation of ICAO regulations in our country.

Often women have family responsibilities to take care of at home. How do you see that balance happening at work place?
I am blessed to have a strong team who ensures their work is done on time and who take time out when needed. They are diligent, trustworthy and also my backbone. However, there may be some days where they are not able to give 100% due to issues with kids at home or personal matters to look into. I have always been understanding and have given them the flexibility to go home. But, I know that when I need them, they are available and they will stand by me. As a leader, I believe that if I give them flexibility, it will only give them space to perform better than their best. Not just women, the support also has to be given to men who have family urgencies. You have to give them that much respect and compassion towards their needs to get work done from them and also to connect with them.

What are your thoughts on your professional journey so far?
Honestly, it’s been a long and extremely fulfilling journey. I have put in huge amount of hard work, working almost 12-14 hours when required. I am very happy with the way things have turned out and also to be recognised for my efforts. I always believed that there is no replacement for hard work and one has to keep focus on their target and work rigorously towards it.

What is your regular day like?
In an industry like aviation you have to be active 24x7, response speed is critical, I am juggling multiple tasks at any given time. Many a time, unforeseen circumstances overshadow my daily tasks, but I have now learnt to adapt. I play my strengths to ensure that everything is taken care of.

How is DGCA adopting women-friendly measures in the organization?
I am very thankful that both DGCA and the Government of India have recognised and taken steps for creating gender equitable environment within aviation sector. At DGCA, we now have internal circular 01 of 2023 on guidelines for creating gender positive environment in the organisation. For example, all the documents now have a proper way of addressing men and women with he/she and not just use their designations like flight attendant or air hostess. We have also introduced mentorship programmes where women can be professionally mentored not just with professional skills but also life skills. It’s like a peer-to-peer community session. I believe this is truly a game-changer for women to give them exposure and a healthy work environment. The Government of India is also taking positive steps for welfare of women which is indeed praiseworthy.
 
Being a woman achiever, what is your message to other women?
I have always believed that everyone and especially every woman should have the liberty of being themselves and not be constrained due to limitations and shackles that have been imposed with the biases and stereotypes that society has formed over the years.

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