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Few women take to the skies in male-dominated drone industry

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 12 Aug 2021

Although there have been more women entering SA’s male-dominated drone industry over the past few years, this is still a “drop in the ocean”, with an estimated 10% of drone pilots being female.

According to industry pundits, with commercial drones being increasingly used across various sectors − such as agriculture, filmmaking, healthcare, mining and aviation − to help local organisations improve efficiency, safety and cost saving, the number of women entering this emerging industry in SA is on the increase.

More private and government organisations, such as South Africa Flying Labs,Girls Fly Programme in Africa (GFPA) and the Drone Council South Africa, are introducing programmes and initiatives to encourage women in the aviation sector.

While this has led to organisations in the field recruiting and retaining more women, experts say the drone industry remains the most under-represented sector, compared to other ICT industries in SA, as the number of females remains low.

“We have seen a lot of young people, especially women, entering the drone industry and we have also seen women that are already in the other departments of the aviation sector pivoting to the drone industry,” says Refilwe Ledwaba, pilot and founder and executive director of GFPA Foundation.

“We have long recognised the immense potential that drones offer, particularly when combined with additional technologies.”

While more women are entering the drone industry and taking up leadership roles, another issue faced by the industry is many participants are still focused on becoming drone pilots, resulting in a gap in females doing numerous other related roles in the field, such as drone 3D modelling and venturing into entrepreneurship, she adds.

“The interesting thing we have observed in the drone industry is that it does not seem to have a lot of barriers that the manned industry has in terms of pilot training and success thereof. But that only applies to one specific skill – that of drone pilots. We have not seen movements in the other part of the drone industry; for example, women working as engineers, data analytics experts, drone manufacturers and women-owned and -led drone companies. That is where the work needs to be done,” notes Ledwaba.

In addition to under-representation, gender disparity still plagues many firms, with men earning higher salaries than women and to some extent, still being considered as better leaders in the drone industry.

“We are seeing a slight increase of women and young girls entering the drone space in SA; however, it is just a drop in the ocean, as the drone industry has one of the lowest numbers of female employees in comparison to other technology-focused industries in SA,” comments Queen Ndlovu, MD of South Africa Flying Labs and founder of QP Drone Tech.

Another issue that hinders women from entering these roles, according to Ndlovu, is that executives at the helm of organisations operating in the drone industry are not interrogating and challenging the status quo and ecosystems by setting targets to increase female representation and continuously evaluating the progress.

“It is also an expensive and over-regulated industry, making it difficult to enter since it is within the aviation space. We need more investments and mentorship programmes to be channelled into this space and to bridge the digital divide for the unprivileged communities in rural areas and townships where most of our females and young women are based.”

Stumbling blocks

The percentage of female drone pilots in the UK is estimated to be just 4%, according to COPTRZ Commercial Drone Experts, while in the US, women in aviation represent only 6% of licensed airplane pilots, according to the Women in Aviation International report.

While SA doesn’t have research statistics for the drone industry, Kim James,spokesperson for Drone Council South Africa, estimates there are less than 10% of female drone pilots in the country, while manned commercial aviation has less than 5% female commercial pilot representation.

While more women have been approaching the non-profit to enquire about entering the field, she points out there are several factors contributing to the dearth of women in the field.

“The regulated drone industry in South Africa is only in its sixth year, which means it is fledgling and still forming for the most part. As a result, there is still not enough awareness as to the career and business opportunities across the drone ecosystem.

Kim James, spokesperson for Drone Council South Africa.
Kim James, spokesperson for Drone Council South Africa.

“As with most disruptive tech industries, there has been a natural tendency for males to gravitate towards it in the first instance. When it comes to operating the drone, in general, females tend to report less confidence and natural ability to fly the drone; the first assumption is that the only job in the industry is that of a drone pilot,” explains James.

Fourth industrial revolution skills development organisation AB4IR, in partnership with the Drone Council of SA, is addressing the gender parity in the drone sector to ensure there is inclusivity of women, through various skills training and awareness programmes for role-players.

Kelebogile Molopyane, CEO of AB4IR, notes: “Lack of funding and government support also contributes to the lack of information about entering the field and the processes of registering to be a pilot licence-holder. Stereotypes still plague the aviation industry, which is still largely considered to be a male-oriented industry.”