Women and the drone world

The drone business might have started as just a hobby for most men, but for many women, the journey has not always been that rosy.

Yet, full with the knowledge of the challenges that lay ahead, Kim James was one of the women who chose the way of the fish and swim upriver. Now a director at South African drone services provider, UAV Aerial Works, Kim started out in finance, but one day she got her hands on a drone; and she has never wanted to take them off it since.

In remembrance of the International Women’s Day, Kim has shared her thoughts as she retraced the steps a lot of women have taken as they try to find their feet in an aviation industry that has been the preserve of men for a very long time. For Kim, women entering the drone industry has been nothing short of a leap of faith.

“It has been said that to succeed at something difficult or challenging, one needs to launch into it by taking a leap of faith. Launch into it by starting small, being brave and staying the course,” Kim wrote in an article in MentHer Magazine.

“Taking on the challenge and never being afraid to fail. And that is what some trailblazing women have done in South Africa by entering our commercial drone industry. The journey has not been without its difficulties though. Since drone regulations were promulgated in mid-2015, the initially labelled innovative response to this new cutting-edge technology has turned out to be somewhat more challenging and slower-moving than expected.

“Perhaps we were lulled into a false sense of opportunity because of the perceived low barrier to entry. Drones are so easily accessible; one can purchase a hobby drone in a toy store and start flying almost immediately. There is however much more to the industry than meets the eye. Historically, women have not been synonymous with stand-out jobs in the aviation industry. Even now, one only must google images of ‘Jobs in Aviation’, or ‘Drone Pilots’ and an array of males in the ‘flying’ seats are displayed.

“The narrative is changing, however. More women are joining aviation and most notably, the drone industry. Women are no longer assumed to be working exclusively as flight attendants or check in desk assistants, and are now proverbially bootstrapping, buckling up, launching to fly, and challenging the norm.”

Standing at only thirteen percent currently, the number of female professionals directly involved in drone technology may still be little according to a report from the International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology, but it is encouraging to note that women are taking strong measures to rectify this.

Kim James

But, like Kim did, the report noted that this will not be a smooth journey at all.

“Like many other STEM areas, the commercial drone industry and corresponding field of higher education suffer from a lack of involvement of women,” the report said. “Men are the overwhelming buyers of commercial drones. According to Guarino (2016), in the U.S. about one percent of drone sales are to women, and 97-98 percent of customers are male.

“Issues with gender stereotyping in the drone arena can be traced to the beginnings of the UAV industry. According to Guarino (2016), early drone kits were aimed at men with a cultural inclination to engage in ‘tinkering’. However, Guarino (2016) believes this mentality will change over time, and drones will become the new iPhone, thus attracting more women into the field.

“McCue (2016) states that the drone industry mirrors other STEM technology fields with the lack of women in top management, and most of the drone firms have few or no women on their executive teams. Montoya (2017) provided statistics on four prominent UAV firms, where the number of women in executive positions ranged from only nine percent to 30 percent. Stone (2015) asserts there are several reasons the drone industry is gender biased. First, a high percentage of the market is men, so vendors continue to market towards males. Second, many drone conferences and events feature male-dominated atmospheres with scantily clad women models, thus exacerbating the exclusion of women as customers.”

Just like the fledgling drone industry itself – the hard steps that are left in integrating drone technology into the busy air spaces of urban cities, for instance – female involved need to grow as the industry develops. Kim said she was grateful that, in the year 2020 when everything in the world went pear-shaped as a result of a global pandemic and drones emerged as a medical delivery knight in shining armour, a government recognised drone body – the Drone Council of South Africa – was formed in her country, to champion the cause of drone technology as an integral part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as well as female involvement in the industry.

“The buzz continued into 2021, with the much-anticipated launch of Women and Drones Africa, which is the first international chapter of the well-established USA Women and Drones platform. The mission of Women and Drones Africa is to raise awareness of the roles women are playing in the African drone industry; to support their greater involvement in the drone industry across Africa and to inspire women and girls to enter the world of drones.

The current picture of female involvement in the drone industry is not flattering. Picture: ADDA

“So, what about these trailblazing women mentioned earlier? There are several standout examples of women in our drone industry who are here, having been inspired by other women in their own likeness, showcased in the media at the time. These women had no idea what they wanted to do career-wise, until one day they paged through a magazine, saw these successful women in aviation and realised what some of them describe as ‘if they can do that, so can I’.”

In this regard – at least as far as the drone space in Africa is concerned, credit must also be given to the United National Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), which lead the opening of the African Drone and Data Academy (ADDA) – the first ever school dedicated to drone technology in Africa. At each intake, the academy insists on female students being at least equal in number, or even more than their male counterparts. Thankfully, the women have taken on the mantle and went on to do great things for their beloved industry after graduation.

Anne Nderitu at Kenya Flying Labs is one.

As Kim put it; “The drone industry ecosystem is of course much more than piloting a drone. In some instances, inspired by their female aviation predecessors, we now see drone pilots, instructors, maintenance technicians, entrepreneurs – drone manufacturing, aviation training school and commercial drone operation. Many of these women are now networking well, and are beginning to support each other, as with the Women And Drones example, where weekly Fireside Chats are an opportunity to share, learn and inspire.

“In my discussions with some of these women, the theme is consistent. Perseverance and sheer grit are required to pursue, self-fund and knock on doors to succeed in this challenging fledgeling industry. Some have worked in particularly male-crowded industries before taking the leap of faith into the world of drones – another male crowded world – would this pose the same challenges? Some have had to ‘convince’ their families that this world of drones is a viable proposition and are now loving the challenge.”

On this International Women’s Day — whose theme is #ChooseToChallenge — we would like to celebrate all the women who have dared the odds and have gone against the norm in the drone industry and triumphed. You might be only thirteen percent at the moment, but the impact you are making is being felt everywhere in the world. We celebrate you being an inspiration to the younger female generations will always be behind you, cheering your every success.


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