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A small girl in shorts and T-shirt hauls a tin of white paint and an old, wiry paintbrush up a ladder to the top of a rickety outbuilding on her father’s sugar cane farm in Ingham, North Queensland. The blazing Australian sun makes the corrugated tin roof hot to the touch but 10-year-old Natalie Pietrobon EMBADJ2019 won’t be deterred.
An hour later, aching and tired, she’s done. Up close, she can’t appreciate the full eﬀect of her handiwork. But she knows that, from the skies, the 3m-high word she has spelled out – HELLO – will be clear to anyone passing overhead.
Really, the message is only intended for one person: her future self. Since the age of ﬁve, Pietrobon has known that she wants to be a pilot. She vows that one day she’ll ﬂy herself over this roof to witness the promise she made herself. Everyone tells her that ﬂying is only for boys. She will prove them all wrong.
“My motivation was being told I couldn’t do it. I was like, ‘Well, let’s see’”, Pietrobon says. She went on to become only the 13th female pilot to graduate in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). “When I started ﬂying C-17’s in 2011, I was the second female pilot to have ﬂ own the aircraft,” she says. “Since then, there has been a steady stream of female pilots behind me.”
LACW Kylie Gibson
“Absolutely, follow your dreams. Anything is possible if you put your mind to it.”
Pietrobon – now 40 and a mother-of-two – became one of the highest-ranking female pilots in the RAAF, with over 2,000 ﬂying hours in aircraft such as a $350-million C-17 Globemaster. She has dealt with numerous complex, dangerous, high-pressure situations – circumnavigating the globe as a captain in her own aircraft; leading military and humanitarian operations in Papua New Guinea.
“I always had this unstoppable passion to ﬂy,” she says. “My family wasn’t able to pay for lessons, so I studied as hard as I could at school and just went from there. But it wasn’t always easy.” Despite setback, failure and coming up against a boys’ club mentality, Pietrobon was ruthlessly determined. “Nobody could sway me from my inner belief. It’s strange – instead of having to push myself, it pulled me, because I believed in it so much.”
The military isn’t an easy world to break into as a woman. “That world is not only dominated by men, but skewed towards their skill sets and how the male brain operates. Nobody had challenged that before. I don’t believe that what I’ve done is extraordinary. I just had a passion – and I chased it.”
“There was an expectation that you’d probably fail,” she adds. “Once I was in, everyone was very supportive. But I felt I had to work twice as hard as the guys.”
After three failed attempts at the RAAF’s notoriously diﬃcult aptitude test, Pietrobon was ﬁnally able to ﬂy over her youthful artwork in Australia. “I resolved that, come hell or high water, one day, I was going to ﬂy myself over this. And I’ve done it many times. It always feels wonderful. I always want to give a thumbs-up to the girl I once was, and tell her, yes, absolutely, follow your dreams. Anything is possible if you put your mind to it.”
She went on to change the status quo for other women. For ﬁve years, she was handed the signiﬁcant and critical job of dealing with gender inequality within the pilot category of the RAAF, leading the Women in Non-Traditional Roles (WINTER) project. The Australian Government wanted an answer from the RAAF as to why they couldn’t retain female pilots; Pietrobon was tasked with getting to the bottom of it and doing something about it.
“The aim was to ﬁgure out what was going wrong, to increase retention of women pilots, then to make the path easier for women to stay in. Nobody had done a project like that before. I was expected to do something of a quick and dirty turnaround, to put it in a business context – it had to be ﬁxed.”
“Female pilots in the RAAF had a 99% exit rate at the 10-year mark. We lost a huge amount of our talent. To be honest, it was embarrassing,” she says. “We had no ﬂow-through of female pilots into senior management or into senior leadership. Then it became a self-fulﬁlling prophecy.
"Unlocking the potential of human capital through diversification has immense business benefits"
“The government wanted to know why we couldn’t retain female pilots and why there were none in senior leadership. We said one of the reasons they’re leaving is we have no mentors in the higher ranks to pull the women up.”
Pietrobon believes that traditional, hierarchical militaries across the world need a complete restructure if they want to retain their talent. “I tried to feed that message up the chain of command,” she says. “But that was a diﬃcult conversation, because not everybody is receptive to transformational change.”
Thanks to her insight and eﬀorts, the RAAF is now succeeding in getting more women through the rank structure and holding onto them once, they become parents. When Pietrobon began, 15 years ago, she was the only female pilot in her squadron. “At the time there were no other female pilots to support me or have my back. That’s completely changed. It feels good. And the female pilots I see today are far more comfortable speaking up about systematic inequalities and defending their ground.”
She tells those she mentors how, at one point, she lost herself slightly, becoming “one of the boys”. “It wasn’t until I graduated and proved I could do it that I embraced my femininity.
A couple of times I painted my nails pink to prove a point,” she laughs. “I realised it was okay to wear a dress when not in my ﬂying suit. It was powerful. The men respect you for being who you are.”
She is convinced we need to reinvent how we talk about diversity.
“People are sick of the dialogue. My motivation is thinking about my daughter growing up. I don’t want her to face what I faced. It took me years to get through the system.”
Her eﬀorts were paying oﬀ but change was frustratingly slow.
“I wanted progress to occur at an accelerated rate with a chasmic leap forward,” she recalls. “Senior leadership felt we had done enough. I respectfully disagreed.” When Pietrobon’s husband, a commercial pilot, was oﬀered a job in Dubai starting in January 2018, they decided to move over there and a new chapter began.
She enrolled on London Business School’s Executive MBA – “the most eﬃcient way to convert my military experience into a business context. I chose LBS because of the reputation the business school has in the ﬁnancial sector,” she explains.
“During the WINTER project I learnt of the strong worldwide evidence that women are unable to move from middle management to senior management, not because of incompetencies, but because they are perceived by their male bosses to lack business, ﬁnancial and strategic acumen. I was intent on gaining that acumen so that these biases could never be used against me and LBS was the top school in the UAE to achieve that.”
No longer an active serving member of the RAAF, she has embarked on a new career path, setting up a consultancy in the UAE that helps companies build a diversiﬁed workforce. “Unlocking the potential of human capital through diversiﬁcation has immense strategic and business beneﬁts,” she says.
It’s a very exciting time: “In the UAE and as part of the London Business School community, there’s so much innovation happening. I’m exposed to so much of that.”
It could also be a seminal moment in gender dynamics: “If everyone took more of an innovative mindset or train of thought, this gender conversation would just fall away.”