The only woman in the room

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Propel Her – Defence Women’s Leadership Series spotlights Air Force Pilot and Commanding Officer,  Wing Commander Marija ‘Maz’ Jovanovich as she shares her insights for leading in a male dominated environment. Thankyou Maz for your contribution to our series! 

They say a picture paints a thousand words, so let’s start with two pictures. The first is a photo of my pilot’s course the day before we graduated in December 2006. In it you can see 16 excited and very relieved young aviators, about to be handed their wings and embark on the grand adventure that is military aviation. And you see me in the front row, grinning from ear to ear, the only woman in the group. 

The second is a photo of my test pilot class, halfway into our training at the United States Air Force Test Pilot School, in late 2013. In it you can see 20 pilots and engineers, all performing at the top of their game just to be selected for the school, let alone to graduate. And you see me in the back row, grinning from ear to ear, the only woman in the group. You don’t have to be John Nash to pick up this pattern…

I have spent most of my career as a military aviator being the only woman in the room, to the extent that periods when I have had female colleagues – a navigator on my crew in 2010, a copilot on my flight in 2017, and a handful of others – distinctly stand out in my memory. That’s not to say that there weren’t other women around; I’ve worked and deployed with wonderful women in admin, logistics, intelligence, and other musterings. But they weren’t where I was, going through the same things I was. I was the 13th woman to graduate from RAAF pilot training, and the 3rd – and last, in more than 50 years of RAAF operation of that aircraft – to captain a P3 crew. There just weren’t many of us around.

To make things more interesting, when I became a test pilot, I was often not just the only woman, but also the youngest person and the technical expert in the room – something I like to refer to as the unholy trinity. It was a very interesting environment for a woman in her early 30s to find herself. 

While I have had a very positive experience overall and an unapologetically good time to boot, of course there were challenges. People thought – and sometimes told me – that I didn’t belong in those rooms. Like the very experienced member of my crew who told me that I was one of the best tactical pilots he had flown with, but he’d rather fly with any man. Or a colleague who called me “the first affirmative action test pilot.” I won’t labour the examples, you get the gist. None of it is earth-shattering, but it can knock your confidence and make it hard to find a voice.

Another drawback of being the sole representative of any group is that you end up feeling like the whole group is being judged on your performance. The harsh reality is that is often true, and it can be a heavy weight to bear. For me, that weight initially manifested as fear of failure and a drive to “prove myself,” neither of which are conducive to peak performance. It took me some time to understand that although I was surrounded by harsh critics, I was my own harshest critic. Once I understood that, I quit trying to “prove myself” and just did the job as well as I possibly could – which turned out to be rather well.

While more women are entering the system today, it will be some time before female aviators cease to be “the only one in the room”, particularly in the upper echelons. And the experience is certainly not limited to aviation, as many of my sisters in arms from across the organisation will attest. So, whether you are just commencing your journey or are well on the way to the top, here are some of the things I’ve learnt along the way that may help. Think of them as “Maz’s guide to being the only woman in the room – and owning it.”

1. Believe that you belong there. You didn’t get to sit in that room by accident, or by luck. You are there because you are qualified to be there, experienced enough to be there, good enough to be there. So believe it.And don’t just say you believe it. Do whatever you need to do to really believe it. What did I need to do to get to that point? I had to find a way to control impostor syndrome, which has been my constant companion through life. Dealing with impostor syndrome is different for everyone; an excellent starting point is the fine article published earlier in this series.

2. Take up the space that belongs to you. One of the tried and true coping mechanisms for dealing with being outnumbered is to shrink into the background, both literally and figuratively. Women do this more than men, at least partly because we are conditioned from birth to be conciliatory and non-confrontational. Well, in an “only woman in the room” scenario, that isn’t an option. You either find a voice, or you quickly become irrelevant. The #1 piece of advice I give to young women (and some young men too) is to learn how to take up more space, as much space as their more confident colleagues take up. It’s not easy, and it takes practice, but it’s crucial.

3. Build a community. You may be outnumbered, but you don’t have to be alone. I guarantee that there are people around you who support you and want to see you do well, even if they are not always obvious at first. Find them and nurture those relationships. One of the greatest things I learned how to do was to seek out allies wherever I go. One of the most rewarding payoffs of doing that was hearing my (male) allies publicly shut down a (male) colleague who was venturing that I had been promoted on account of my gender. Put the effort into building a community and you won’t regret it.

4. Be kind to yourself. What we are talking about here is hard. It simmers away in the background, making it feel like you’re always walking uphill; it piles up and can drag you down. So be kind to yourself. Take time for yourself. And remember that pursuing excellence is great; pursuing perfection is fraught.  Full disclosure: I’m still working on this one too. I advise other people to be kind to themselves, while I am often terrible at taking that same advice. But I am trying. That’s all any of us can do.

About the author

Marija Jovanovich is an Air Force pilot, test pilot and senior officer who has flown some interesting aeroplanes, been to some interesting places, and had the privilege of leading men and women in both peace and war. Twitter: @maz_jovanovich