In a significant stride toward diversity and inclusivity, Poppy Khoza, the Director of Civil Aviation at the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), has achieved a historic milestone. She was unanimously elected by the ICAO Member States to serve as the President for the 41st ICAO Assembly, becoming the first woman to hold this esteemed position in ICAO’s 78-year history.
“We’ve come a long way, but there is still so much more to do,” remarks Khoza, who was honoured with the Inspirational Role Model award at IATA’s 2023 Diversity & Inclusion Awards.
Khoza’s optimism for the future is grounded in the notable progress diversity has made in recent years. She highlights her own role as the Director/CEO of the SACAA, a position that would have been unimaginable a generation ago, and the global discussions on gender equality and inclusion.
“We are making significant strides,” she asserts. “We have established a strong foundation, attracting young women to aviation due to the progress we’ve achieved. As they become more involved, their voices grow louder and stronger. However, it’s essential to question the pace of progress and strive for greater speed.”
Khoza emphasizes the importance of setting ambitious targets and recognizing milestones to measure progress accurately. At the SACAA, for instance, 51% of employees are female, and 50% of the Executive Committee comprises women. An even more impressive statistic is that 60% of seats on the Board of Directors are held by women.
Moreover, South Africa’s commitment to gender diversity extends beyond aviation. The South African Government Cabinet is comprised of 50% women, and the parliament is not far from achieving that ratio. Women hold prominent roles in the Ministry of Transport, with Khoza overseeing the regulatory aspects of aviation, and women leading in airport and air navigation sectors.
“We have made rapid progress and institutionalized diversity while practicing fair discrimination as a useful tool when employed responsibly,” Khoza notes.
However, Khoza emphasizes that diversity should not merely be a numbers game. Focusing solely on compliance can set women up for failure if the necessary tools for success are lacking.
Support mechanisms, ranging from inclusive language and gender-appropriate uniforms to improved office spaces, are crucial. Khoza emphasizes that it is not enough to have women represented in top positions; it is equally important to foster a culture that respects their work and allows for the freedom to learn from failure.
Championing diversity and inclusion requires normalizing the presence of women at all levels of organizations across all sectors. Khoza acknowledges that cultural change is challenging due to deeply ingrained beliefs and stereotypes, which have no place in modern society. Overcoming these biases requires constant awareness and confrontation.
Role models play a pivotal role in driving meaningful progress. Khoza acknowledges the importance of role models, both male and female, in her own journey. However, she stresses that there are still too few women in aviation for others to relate to. Highlighting the successes and milestones of these women sends a powerful message to society that women can achieve greatness.
Men, Khoza asserts, have a critical role in achieving gender balance and must be part of the support structure. “Role models provide a safe platform and understand the path to growth,” she explains. “But female role models are essential for changing the narrative, providing relatable stories and inspiration.”
To encourage mentorship and role modelling, the SACAA has established a female mentorship program and is collaborating with other state organizations to expand the reach of women role models.
Khoza stresses the importance of leaders, especially male leaders, actively participating in diversity and inclusion efforts. This involvement is a fundamental aspect of ICAO’s Global Aviation Gender Summit, an event that brings together governments, organizations, academia, and influencers to advocate for gender equality and women’s empowerment in aviation.
Khoza concludes by emphasizing the need for action. “While building strong foundations and normalizing diversity, we must move from talk to action,” she says. “Tangible results are not just about numbers but about fostering the right culture and amplifying the right voices.”
The journey toward diversity and inclusivity in aviation continues, guided by leaders like Poppy Khoza, who pave the way for a more equitable and promising future.