Our interview with Irina Statch and Mariah Murray of AVSS looks at how women are experiencing - and changing - the world of drones. The drone industry is growing rapidly. Deliveries of critical medical supplies, remote inspections of critical infrastructure and lengthy cargo flights are common, but would have been impossible even a few years ago. Children growing up today will come to accept them in the same way that the present generation see Google or Amazon - as part of their lives. But this young industry may inherited some old attitudes, particularly towards women in the workplace.
DroneTalks’ co-founder Eszter Kovacs was fortunate enough to get the perspective on this from two women who work for AVSS earlier this year at the Commercial UAV Show in Las Vegas. AVSS is a leading supplier of parachute recovery systems, offering peace of mind for drone operators whose vehicles cross populated areas and fly beyond visual line of sight.
Irina Statch is the Canadian company’s Senior Project Coordinator and Supply Chain Manager, while Mariah Murray is its VP of Operations. Both praise AVSS for its inclusive culture, and feel that this creates a chance to create wider change.
Mariah has her own way of managing difficult attitudes. “I was talking to some ladies out on the floor today and they were telling me how they were ignored when they came up to one of the booths,” she says. “Then some men visited the same booth just after them and they were approached immediately. If you make jokes about this being a boys’ club, it opens their eyes a little and gets them thinking it might be true. So you make a joke about it, voice it and then it might mean that they don’t do it again, because I don’t think that anyone does it on purpose.
Mariah’s sense of humour might make for a valuable tool, but so does her seniority within the company. “When they learn about your position, you’re definitely taken a little bit more seriously as a female in a male dominated industry,” she laughs. Irina agrees. “When we are at shows like this, people do take a step back when they come to the booth,”she says. “But being with Mariah makes that easier, so having a strong team behind you will really help. And it means that when you do see other women, you feel a sense of connection”.
One of the positives about the drone industry is that it is a space where rules can be looked at with fresh pairs of eyes. This readiness to see aviation as not solely the preserve of the control tower or anyone with a pilot’s licence is immediately attractive to many people, including women. Everyone noticed that more women were in attendance in Las Vegas than ever before, but as Maria says, they can often face a lot of unseen hurdles - most particularly, fear.
“I felt so intimidated at my first trade show,” Mariah remembers. “Not excited at all, but very intimidated, and I’m normally a confident person. When you’re thrown into something like that, it can be easy to shut down, and I’ve had to learn how to persevere through that and welcome the women I see. You don’t want anyone here to feel like that and I certainly don’t want anyone to feel the way I felt”.
An example of this is that the two-woman interview with the women from AVSS was the first in Ezster’s three years of visiting the Las Vegas events. This raises the possibility that women might feel unsure about entering the drone industry or leave because they feel frustrated.
“Not everyone will push through that,” Maria says. “Some people will say to themselves ‘You know what? This is not for me,’ and they’ll walk away. And I’m sure many have. I feel like what’s missing today is a network of women that support each other at events like this, where they can interact and have side conversations. That way, they won’t feel on their own and they get support in a planned and organised way”.
To some extent, the problem is already solving itself. Younger people for whom gender equality is a given, and not a concept that has to be explained or taught are less likely to passively accept the way that some people and companies have of sidelining women. Technology is also a vehicle for this, since people who have grown up using iPads are not going to understand why they are supposedly less able to operate one than a male colleague.
“There’s no sexual bias in technology,” Irina adds. “And we’re seeing people become more technologically inclined much younger, so we can get those younger generations excited about drones and drone technology. Bring it to schools and areas where kids can get familiarized with the technology and learn about the options waiting for them. That will inspire girls going to school or going to university. If we start early, they will be able to relate to this kind of tech”.
And there is an element of self-reinforcement. The more women from the younger generation see women like them working in the industry, the more they will realise that such careers are not just possible in theory, but achievable in reality. “They’ll see women in the drone industry and look up to them,” Irina says. “And they’ll feel able to come up to people like me and Maria in our booth and have conversations about joining us”.
There is a strong argument that national governments should do more to promote inclusion, but any steps could take a long time to implement. In the meantime, it could be companies who hold the key to retaining the women already in the drone industry and to attracting new generations of female workers who see it as a safe place for their talents and aspirations.
Even simple things like the way job advertisements are worded or where they are placed could reach a more diverse candidate pool. “We don’t have the time to go out and educate people,” Maria says. “That’s not a realistic aspiration when you’re running a business. But we can think about how we recruit women. How do we make sure when a woman reads a job posting that they don’t feel like it’s tailored for a man? I read that if a woman reads a job description and they don’t think they’re 80% qualified, they won’t apply. For men, it’s way lower. They can be only 30% qualified, and yet they’ll still apply”.
To date, Irina and Maria are the only women at the company and, for a while, Maria was there by herself. But that shows that the company is open to learning, Irina says. “AVSS will teach you everything you need to know and help you with whatever you want to learn. I find that women are starting to apply more, because news of their success is spreading”. There may also be a ripple effect, where women who succeed in one company inspire others to apply elsewhere.
“We just had a testing of one of our products in a really secluded area in northern Ontario,” she continues, “and one of the testing companies that we were partnered with just employed two candidates to work there. One of them was female, and I thought that was so cool. She has become a pilot within no time and you can really see the commitment”.
These are early days for the drone industry that seemingly uncovers new possibilities and applications every day. But they are also an opportunity to escape from some of the problems that affect older, more established industries and to make sure that attitudes are not simply inherited, but examined and challenged. In the words of Mariah Murray, “Having females be a part of the conversations and make the decisions makes for a well-balanced team”.
Irina is not a drone industry native and has no background in engineering. Instead, she shows that many of the people who come to the drone industry bring expertise from different fields and fresh perspectives. She qualified with a degree in communications from the University of Ottawa and did several unrelated jobs before a friendship with the CEO of AVSS, Josh Ogden, led to her finding out more about the company.
Learning that they operated at the intersection of technology and safety, Irina readily admits that this piqued her interest and she joined them in a project management role shortly afterwards. The essence of working in a startup is that staff members can find themselves doing numerous roles simultaneously, and Irina has found that she is increasingly responsible for managing the company’s supply chain as it grows and develops.
Like her colleague, Mariah arrived at AVSS having completed an unrelated degree and having done a number of different jobs. In Mariah’s case, she had a degree in organic chemistry and quickly went into the operations management role with a number of other companies before joining AVSS at an early stage of its growth journey over five years ago.
She knew the founder Josh Ogden from her time at the University of New Brunswick and from a previous company. Conceding that she is very, very busy, as well as its operations, Mariah is responsible for the company’s finances as well as its business development, and also owns a part of its sales revenue stream. In this capacity, she manages the company’s relationships with over 50 DJI dealers.
The acronym which makes up the company’s title is an abbreviation for Aerial Vehicle Safety Solutions, and as this implies, AVSS specialise in a unique aspect of the drone industry. All vehicles flying over urban areas have to satisfy the authorities that they are safe, so the company have adopted a unique and innovative approach to the problem - they make parachute pods which can be attached to the DJI family of drones in the M200, M300 and M350 series or as wholly separate units.
These pods are compliant with the ASTM F3322 safety standard governing parachutes on small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS). They provide for peace of mind of the drone operator if the flight is suddenly terminated, using AVSS’ own terminology, meaning that if something should happen to the drone in flight, it returns safely to the ground without showering people in debris. In the words of AVSS, these are complex operations made safe.
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