Client Story: How an Air Canada Leader Soared Above Bias

THE FIRST TIME she felt the sting of bias, Fauzia Sikender was 10 years old. For months, the Canadian fourth-grader, tall for her age, from a French-speaking school, with an Afghan name and mixed heritage, “checked all the boxes” as a bullying target in her new English school in the Montreal suburbs, she recalls.

“They nicknamed me ‘Freaky Fauz,’” Sikender says. The memories of her rocky school days in the 1970s are still fresh in the 52-year-old’s mind, not just because of the pain they caused—but because of the comfort and support she received back then to power past the prejudice—support that has carried her through her career and to her current position as Air Canada’s Manager of Employee Engagement.

The test and the turning point

It was an unlikely rescuer that pulled Sikender out of childhood despair: a psychological assessment test.

The teasing and isolation she endured had caused her to disengage from school. “I didn’t stop working; I just didn’t participate or do homework. A teacher asked for an educational psychology test. She thought I might have a learning impairment,” Sikender says.

What followed changed her life. Though she never learned the exact results of the test, what it showed was clear in the way her mother looked at Sikender after learning the outcome: “She said, ‘I always knew you were smart. I just didn’t know you could do anything. You can do anything you want to when you grow up.’”

After that, Sikender says, her self-esteem soared. “I knew there was nothing wrong with me. The psychologist confirmed it. One important thing is that the test was anonymous – I wasn’t Fauzia,” to the tester, Sikender says. “She was looking at data on a paper.”

The test’s unbiased methods had a profound effect. “My childhood experiences shaped my perception of the world, and of how people learn. As a result, I became a big proponent of evaluations, of reducing bias, and of benchmarking data against other standards,” Sikender says. 

Finding empathy

The test didn’t end all of the teasing, but that unbiased assessment of her abilities buoyed Sikender through her grade-school and high-school years, even when she dropped out of college after the death of her beloved grandfather. She turned her grief into an essay about him, and that helped her gain late acceptance at Concordia University in Montreal, to pursue a communications degree and a minor in psychology, which included behavioral statistics.

Throughout her university years, Sikender worked as a receptionist at a hospital emergency room, and discovered she had a knack for making patients and families feel comfortable. “If you were admitted I’d do the admission paperwork. One of the cardiologists said that after I interviewed patients their heart rates and blood pressure would go down,” she says. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s great that I have a nice touch.’ I had to speak to people at their most vulnerable time–so I guess I had empathy.”

A win-win against bias

After Sikender graduated from Concordia at the age of 27, another encounter with bias propelled her toward better things—this time, with Air Canada. After earning her degree, she thought marriage might be in the cards, but her boyfriend at the time threw her a devastating curveball: “He said, ‘I can’t get married – you are not Italian, and you have a mixed background.’” While coping with heartbreak, Sikender learned from her sister that Air Canada was hiring flight attendants, but that she’d have to relocate to land a job. “For me it was a win-win,” Sikender says, “to get away and start a new life – to see the world.”  In 1997 at age 31, she became the oldest flight attendant in her training class, and moved to Toronto.

“In the interview I noticed that nobody blinked an eye when I said my name. There was a roomful of names that were difficult to pronounce—and I loved it,” Sikender says.

This time, her French-language skills were a blessing—Air Canada needed bilingual flight attendants and transferred Sikender to Vancouver in 1998.

Though she was still a junior attendant, “I had the best flying—I went to Japan, had three-day layovers, and went to gorgeous hotels in Boston and New York –I saw plays and walked by Tiffany’s with a croissant in hand even though I’m no Audrey Hepburn.”

In 2000 Sikender applied for a special assignment training other flight attendants. “We trained in organizational psychology on how to be unbiased and how to make expert qualitative analyses. I loved it because you are meeting people – giving everyone the same chance but learning to recognize your own biases.”

Disaster strikes

Sikender was an in-charge flight attendant when September 11 hit. She remembers how the airline displayed “real inclusivity” then. “There had been a merger with another airline, and seniority issues that made for challenging days sometimes, but when September 11 happened everybody bonded together.”

She recalls the stress levels were high—especially after the tragic news that one flight attendant had a husband who perished in the World Trade Center. One of her colleagues, also a roommate, “resigned—covered in head-to-toe hives.”

But Sikender remained on course. Despite her own stress—she was nervous that her Afghan name might raise concerns among passengers—she felt she was needed. “I knew I could be of service to others. With my ER training, I could have that empathy when people came to me panicked and worried.”

“When I was this 10-year-old kid, nobody knew how I felt. I was sick to my stomach and I wanted to die,” Sikender says. “When I was flying with passengers and they saw the debris on the ground from the September 11 attacks, I could read them. I could provide comfort. I could get them to calm down.”

After a stint flying special corporate assignments (her first was shuttling Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band on their 2002 Canada tour), she married, had children and mostly took on-the-ground assignments. After her husband left his job to start his own business, Sikender decided to start flying more – until she suffered an in-flight bout with appendicitis in 2011.

Following her medical emergency, Sikender decided to return to her passion for training.  “I called up two old bosses and asked for any kind of training job. I wound up starting new job as a training specialist in Dec. 2011 – working for the General Manager of Cabin Crew Training, Mark Olivier.”

A few years later, Olivier was promoted to Air Canada’s Director of Talent, Employee Engagement & Diversity. Following his promotion, Sikender decided she wanted to work for Olivier again.  Although she was unsure about how her history as a flight attendant would mesh with a corporate HR role, Air Canada was increasingly seeing the value of moving talent around and outside of their comfort zones. In fact, Olivier had started his career as a flight attendant.

And yet again, the forces of impartiality worked in Sikender’s favor–this time, courtesy of Olivier, who knew she could achieve many things if she was simply given a chance.

“He presented me as a candidate without using my name,”’ Sikender says.  “That’s how I became Manager of Employee Engagement.”