I am Generation Equality: Captain Zoya Sapra Aggarwal, pilot and gender equality advocate

Billions of people across the world stand on the right side of history every day. They speak up, take a stand, mobilise, and take big and small actions to advance women’s rights. This is Generation Equality.

Captain Zoya Sapra Aggarwal. Photo: Air India/Daboo Ratnani

I am Generation Equality because…

“I believe that the opportunity for equality starts at the time of our birth. We are born equal, we all deserve the same love, we deserve equal rights and opportunities.

Very early on, I was expected to let my parents find me a “good” boy to marry and have children with. However, I had a different dream for myself. Since I was eight years old, I wanted to fly planes.

I am Generation Equality because I believe that all girls everywhere need allies to help them dream, help them see the world, not only for what it is but for what it can become.

Breaking the glass ceiling…

A woman becoming a pilot was considered a non-traditional career option in the early 90’s. One of the reasons my parents were so hesitant about me [becoming a pilot] was that they’d never heard of a female pilot before. When I joined Air India [in 2004], I was only the fifth female pilot the airline had ever employed!

There were many unique social pressures that women faced in this industry when I started out. Many airlines didn’t want to extend maternity leave to their female employees and feared that women would leave the workforce upon childbirth. Today, female pilots take up 12.4 per cent of the airspace in India, much higher than the global average of a mere 5.4 per cent. While we still struggle for gender equality, this is a big win.

Ultimately, the plane knows no gender, physics knows no gender. The machine doesn’t know whether it’s being flown by a woman or a man. The flight itself boils down to your skills, and not your gender. The fight, however, remains rooted in doing away with the archaic notions of what women and girls can and cannot do.

Boeing CEO, Dennis Muilenburg believes a growing shortage of pilots represents “one of the biggest challenges” facing the airline industry. We need to prepare our girls and we need to start now. We have to go to the schools and encourage our children to be captains, leaders, and change makers. We need to promote STEM education in ways that are interesting, engaging and [does not give the impression that they are only for boys and men]. We need to show young girls [role models] of what they can become, drive home the point that they are capable of pursuing any dream. Give them wings and watch them fly.

On the front-lines of COVID-19

COVID-19 has brought mass devastation but has also been an important teacher, teaching us all the value of community.

I volunteered to be one of the front-line pilots responsible for bringing back Indian nationals to their country during the pandemic. Everyone was scared and anxious. Our first evacuation flight was on Mother’s Day; I was the pilot in command. I remember the anxiety my mother felt knowing that I was flying in the middle of a global pandemic. It was the thought of the people in the flight who were on their way to be reunited with their families that kept me going.

As soon as I landed in Mumbai the aircraft broke into applause. I remember walking out with my team and seeing people crying and clapping. When your job has that kind of an impact on people, you’re driven to do more.”

Captain Zoya Sapra Aggarwal is a commercial pilot and the commander with Air India, TED speaker and an inspiration to young women and girls in India and everywhere. In 2013, she became the youngest female pilot to fly a Boeing-777. In January 2021, she made another milestone by commanding an all-women team of pilots to fly Air India’s longest non-stop commercial flight from San Francisco, USA to Bengaluru, India. She been pointed to the Aerotime Global Advisory Board in recognition of her significant role in the aviation industry. UN Women spoke to Captain Zoya for Youth Day 2021.


Originally published on UN Women’s regional website for Asia and the Pacific

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