Inspirational Woman: Kanchana Gamage | Founder, The Aviatrix Project & STEM ambassador, STEMPOINT East

Kanchana GamageKanchana is founder of the Aviatrix Project. Set up in 2015, her very own community interest company aims to encourage young people from a range of backgrounds to consider careers in aviation.

Completely self-funded, with support from Easyjet and a number of aviation organisations, the project has 165 regular active volunteer pilots, engineers, air traffic controllers and airline crew who carry out visits and workshops with young people to inspire the next generation.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I joined STEMPOINT East as its STEM engagement coordinator in early 2020, having been a STEM ambassador through my work with the Aviatrix Project for many years. I work with STEMPOINT East’s pool of 3,000 ambassadors, as well as employers and universities, connecting them to schools and young people to bring STEM careers alive for the next generation. My role involves helping schools and young people understand the breadth of opportunity around STEM careers and provides employers with the resources and training they need to support their employees in becoming active ambassadors.

Alongside this, my community interest company, the Aviatrix Project, was set up in 2015 to encourage young people from a range of backgrounds to consider careers in aviation. Completely self-funded, with support from Easyjet and a number of aviation organisations, the project has 165 regular active volunteer pilots, engineers, air traffic controllers and airline crew who carry out visits and workshops with young people to inspire the next generation.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

From a young age, I was interested in a STEM career, originally hoping to become a pilot or an engineer. Having been born in Sri Lanka, I moved to England at the age of 14 and lack of funding and opportunities meant that I didn’t pursue a career in aviation.  Instead I entered a career in teaching, completing a teacher training degree and a Masters at The University of Cambridge. I became a primary teacher and headteacher, and later a University Lecturer leading a PGCE Primary course at Anglian Ruskin University as well as leading an MEd in Leading Teaching and Learning for an education partner at the University of Hertfordshire.

However, my interest in aviation remained and in my early 30s I gained my private pilot’s licence. I was determined to make a difference over the continued lack of focus on STEM education, and the clear lack of women within the industry, so I my knowledge in the education and aviation sectors to create The Aviatrix Project.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

The biggest challenge was the lack of role models at a young age. This set the course for my career and not having the opportunities and financial backing meant that I was not able to pursue a STEM career at a young age as I had hoped. This is what made me absolutely determined to become a pilot as I got older and set up an organisation which supported young people who are from disadvantaged backgrounds.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

For me it has to be the success of The Aviatrix Project. We have had a positive impact on thousands of young people and we can pinpoint young women who have gone onto achieve so much in the technology and engineering industries. We’ve been having conversations about the STEM skills gap for years, particularly in relation to the under representation of women in the industry, and I realised I had something quite unique to offer by combining my areas of experience.  By learning to fly, I’d built up quite a lot of contacts within the industry and I wanted to bridge that gap, getting pilots and aviation engineers into schools to talk to people about these fascinating careers. Our partnership with Easyjet early on gave us exposure and access to pilots who have become our own STEM ambassadors, regularly going into schools to hold workshops or present in assemblies, inspiring young people to do something they never thought could be possible.  We now have such a wide range of volunteers from various organisations and flying disciplines. All our ambassadors have a story to tell. It can be expensive to train to become a commercial pilot, but there are solutions and pathways in, with the right support. We support young people and families with mentoring and signposting them to where they can get up to date information and support. It is also one of our main aims to target young people and schools from disadvantaged areas across the UK. This isn’t just about flying, we open up the whole industry for them and help them understand the exciting world of STEM.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Role models have been instrumental in my career. It’s about young people seeing someone that they can actually see themselves becoming. It’s very hard for them to imagine what it’s like to be someone else if they don’t see it in action. This is also why it’s so important to have real diversity within our ambassadors, as even now, there are perceptions around what scientists, doctors and pilots look like.  Ultimately there are no limits, no barriers, only the ones put there by society in the past. I feel a great sense of responsibility as a STEM ambassador from a BAME community to ensure I’m a strong role model.

We need to change perceptions held by parents, families and teachers too so that the system doesn’t repeat itself. STEM learning needs to be cultivated from a very early age because by year 5 and 6 children are already forming their perceptions about future careers. We’re at a crossroads and I can see things changing from what they’ve been, but it takes passionate people with the right mindset to do this. STEM Ambassadors are a huge part of this. This is why I am incredibly passionate about both my role as the Founder of The Aviatrix Project and as a STEM Engagement Coordinator.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

It’s important to keep the passion which attracted to the industry. Don’t let the idea that the tech industry is male dominated prevent you from trying to reach the top. It’s important to be the absolute best you can be in your role and be authentic – and to use your voice to champion what you believe in. As a Google #IamRemarakble facilitator I work with many groups of women in our workshops who lack the confidence to promote themselves and the work that they do. Research shows that those who self-promote, get promoted. Those individuals who articulate, celebrate and amplify their accomplishments are seen, heard and recognised in their work places.  The spotlight is put on them, by them. Whereas, those who shy away from verbalising their accomplishments out loud, stay in the shadows. Self-promotion is not a quality, it is a skill. A skill we need to develop, practice and perfect.

Attend diversity and inclusion events, join organisations who champion the cause and connect with companies and individuals who nurture this. And it’s important that you as you excel in your career that you support young women who are entering the industry and becoming a role model for the younger generation.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

There are certainly barrier for success for women. The Tech City report found that only 13% of women surveyed aspired to a career in technology compared to 36% of men. It is possible that this is due to a lack of confidence and also the stereotyping and discriminatory policies which have existed in the industry.  Companies not only need to attract women to tech roles but also retain them. Women need to have the same opportunities as their male counterparts to enter senior positions and have support for maternity leave without the fear of redundancies. And of course reaching equality in pay is such an important aspect.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

Reaching gender parity in the sector is not only a diversity and inclusion issue – it’s a business issue. It’s been proven time and again that companies who have a diverse workforce are more productive and profitable. It’s important that companies work with university engagement teams to inspire, mentor and champion women in tech. Students need to meet role models, take part in activities which showcase careers and foster technical literacy. This works also needs to extend to schools where girls from a young age see tech careers as something to aspire to. Apprenticeships and graduate schemes are also a way in which the talent pool can be widened.

Alongside this competitive and fair salaries and access to development opportunities are promotions will attract more women – and keep them there. Diversity initiatives that include policies for women are proven to be hugely beneficial such as fair maternity policies and flexible working for parents and carers. Tech companies can also devise flexible recruiting strategies which take into account women’s specific needs and spirations. This can include aspects such as using gender neutral language in job descriptions.

There is currently only 17 per cent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

Ensure that all organisations and businesses adopt diversity and inclusion policies as a priority. It’s vital that this is given the importance it deserves within workplaces – and not just a working party as a tick box exercise or a tokenistic gesture. Both employers and employees need to understand the importance of diversity and inclusion. And it’s not just an issue about women – it’s about all supporting and championing all underrepresented groups in society.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

It’s so important to meet and work with like minded people as much as you can – especially who are keen to champion diversity and inclusion. A number of organisations come to mind such WISE, IET, WES and Women in Tech as well as the European Women in Tech Conference. Within aviation there are more and more initiatives to support women such as The Aviatrix Project, British Women Pilots Association and Women in Aviation International. I would recommend you follow as many of these organisations as you can on social media and male connections. This will open up other connections and open doors and offer opportunities to meet like minded people.


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