“Don’t ever feel like you need to compromise on your dreams and aspirations.”
Virginia Svilans was introduced to flying early on in her life. Coming from a family of immigrants, at a young age she would often travel back to Europe to visit family and friends. “I can remember constantly asking to see the flight deck, every time I flew. I was infatuated with the contrast between the very dark cabin where passengers sat and a very bright flight deck, where the pilots were,” says Virginia.
Throughout her life, it was never a question of if Virginia would become a pilot; it was always a question of when. With a supportive family who encouraged her at every turn, it didn’t take long to achieve her lifelong goal. In February 2002, Virginia started her pilot training, by 2005 was flying commercially and in 2013, became a pilot at WestJet.
We sat down with Virginia and asked her a few questions about her career, what she would like to see changed in the industry and what advice she has for women aspiring to become a pilot.
How have you felt supported in your career?
Growing up, I had a family that supported me in achieving every goal I set my sights on. Since joining WestJet, I always felt encouraged to take on roles outside of the flight deck that diversified my skillset.
When I was in flight school however, I was one of four women in my college class. While operating within that environment, I never really noticed an obvious gender imbalance because I didn’t know anything else. It wasn’t until I became pregnant with my first child that I felt impacted by the lack of female presence in the industry.
At 30 weeks pregnant, you are no longer fit to fly as a pilot, leaving a gap of time before maternity leave begins. At the time, I was working for a commercial airline that had been operating since the 1980s. I was informed that I would be the first pilot within their company to take maternity leave. As a result, the proper policies and procedures were not yet in place to support me between the time I was no longer able to fly and when my maternity leave would begin. To fill that gap, I ended up having to go on Employment Insurance, which lead to the longevity of my maternity leave decreasing.
In most industries, when you return from maternity leave, you are working eight hour shifts and going home to your family at the end of the day. As a pilot, when you return, at times your shift can require you to be away from your family for up to five days. This created conflict for me in navigating being a new mother, while balancing a career that I loved. I would like to see better support for both male and female pilots entering into or returning from maternity or paternity leave.
What would you like to see change in the aviation industry?
If I could snap my fingers and implement a pilot crew that had equal gender representation, there would still be challenges. We need to work on building the proper foundations and support so that more women see this career as obtainable and viable.
Typically, when I tell people I am a pilot, with two children, the first question I get asked is “who is watching your kids?” I often wonder if my male counterparts get asked the same question. There is a certain stigma that is associated with female pilots that needs to be changed.
What advice would you give young girls and women who are interested in the industry?
Don’t ever feel like you need to compromise on your dreams and aspirations. If you want a career, make it happen – if you want a family, you can have one – and if you want both that is attainable. Women have been made to feel as though they must choose between either having a family or a successful career. While it has its challenges, my family is thriving, and I know I am a strong role model for both my son and daughter.
To learn more, visit westjet.com/womeninaviation.