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Communication, Safety culture

“Can’t be what you can’t see” or “If you can’t see it, be it” – Changing the narrative and the culture

Changing the language to enhance diversity.

The language we use can have such marked influence on those around us. Often it is not the words but how it is said and the implications of it. Where you come from, your experiences and the influence of others shapes perspective. How we perceive words, how they make us feel; positive or negative, if they make you comfortable or anxious. 

I have been thinking about the use of language a lot with respect to the saying “you can’t be what you can’t see”. It is a saying that has been bandied around within the aviation industry and I think any industry that lacks diversity over the past few years. I appreciate its sentiment but I have a different perspective or interpretation of the language in that saying. 

I realise it tries to get those in the minority to stand up and shout about what they have achieved so more are inspired to follow, with the ultimate aim to change the imbalance. But the language in the saying “you can’t be what you can’t see” has negative connotations. It implies that if someone can’t see a reflection of themselves in an industry or in a role, then they can’t be it, it’s not possible. And for those in the majority it feeds the subconscious bias of unless I recognise a trait in a potential candidate then they shouldn’t be here and I will choose someone that looks, thinks like me. By that measure if no-one has gone before, how do we ever change the imbalance?  Shouldn’t we be encouraging those who are not represented to have a go, changing the language we use. Encouraging and expecting those who are represented or in the majority to provide support, look around and be conscious of seeking out diversity. Making it possible for those who are not seen, be seen.

Added challenges of being the first

There are often added challenges in being the first, but there has to be a first at some stage, wether it be in relation to gender, race, culture or any other difference. Having personal experience as a first and not having anyone I could see doing what I wanted to do, I have always found the “you can’t be what you can’t see” a little strange because my response has always been: “Why not, I did?”. 

I was the first female pilot in the Royal Australian Navy and the only one for the next seven years – I achieved what I did, not because someone was there before me but because I had positive support from my family, the courage and some say resilience, or maybe it was just plan old stubbornness, to show that a woman could do what the men could do and become a Naval pilot, flight commander, instructor and leader. 

It took me a long time to stand up and shout about my career. To promote what I had done, to make it more visible to the next generation. I think this was due to my failure to recognise that when there is no-one like you challenging the status quo can be almost impossible without the benefits a supporting and encouraging family and friends. Also I delayed because I had no reference, I didn’t realise some of the additional challenges until much later, particularly when I saw it happen to others. It took me a while to realise that some parents, family, friends and peers need to see someone else who looks like you to support your dreams.

Let’s take the step to change the narrative, the language, and stop saying “you can’t be what you can’t see” and start saying;

“If you can’t see it, be it. We will support you all the way!”

Employers, managers and leaders; look to your industry and seek out the differences. Try not to recruit carbon copies of yourself, find the unique and make them welcome; change the language. Parents, peers, friends and families; if no one is like your child, friend, family member in a role, industry, job then don’t ever suggest it is not possible but give them the support to be the first, take the step, improve #diversity and change our world. 

In aviation if you want to know were to start changing the language, finding that support, as an individual or organisation, I can recommend Women in Aviation Australian Chapter.