Initiatives Seeking to Solve Aviation’s Gender Gap

Initiatives Seeking to Solve Aviation’s Gender Gap

Over the last decade, the proportion of female aircraft mechanics has hovered at around 2% of the workforce—a disappointing figure, particularly when put into context with an overall decreasing labor force in the industry. 

Considering the industry’s overall need for skilled labor, stakeholders are focusing their attention on attracting women to aviation careers—and keeping them there—through government-funded initiatives and outreach to younger generations of girls.

According to the FAA’s 2017 U.S. Civil Airmen Statistics, only 6,855 of 286,268 active certified mechanics in 2017 were women. Although the number was a slight increase over the previous year (2016), it represents a decline in female mechanics compared to numbers from 2010-15, which ranged from a little over 7,000 to nearly 8,500. 

To try to improve these statistics, the U.S. House of Representatives in April passed the Promoting Women in the Aviation Workforce Act, part of the FAA Reauthorization Act. The legislation, which was introduced as a companion bill in the Senate last December, focuses on the creation and facilitation of a Women in Aviation Advisory Board that will be tasked with promoting organizations or programs involved in recruiting women to the industry. The board will include representatives from airlines, nonprofits, the military and aerospace companies and associations, and it will devise a strategic plan examining industry trends that might discourage women from pursuing careers in aviation and assisting organizations and programs in expanding or enhancing training and outreach programs exclusively for women.

During the bill’s introduction in the Senate, co-sponsor Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) drew on her experience as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot to highlight the bill’s importance. “When I was training to become a pilot, it was rare to see another woman in my class. Although some progress has been made to help women enter the aviation field, we are still dramatically underrepresented among pilots and we need to do more,” she said. Duckworth added that the bill will “help level the playing field for women and encourage them to enter the aviation industry.”

Unsurprisingly, pilot careers tend to get top billing in workforce initiatives like this. One organization with a potential stake in the bill, the Association for Women in Aviation Maintenance (AWAM), was initially formed as a response to women-centric organizations within aviation being dominated by pilots. “Even when we attended the Women in Aviation Conference and found ourselves surrounded by a sea of extraordinary women, our perception was that the participants were predominantly pilots,” says the organization’s website. “Again, we found ourselves in what appeared to be a rather different minority status.”

AWAM is a nonprofit volunteer organization championing women in aviation maintenance and engineering. It holds social events and runs a scholarship and awards program. According to AWAM President Angel Green, the organization’s board is following the Promoting Women in the Aviation Workforce Act and looking into advantages it could provide for the organization. Green says AWAM is focused on boosting membership numbers, particularly in anticipation of what might be required to tap into resources the bill could provide.

One roadblock in the way of recruiting for the organization and attending industry events such as the International Women in Aviation Conference is the nontraditional schedules maintenance careers entail. “A lot of times with maintenance schedules, it’s harder to get four or five days off unless [your] company is behind it as a good idea,” says Green. “If you don’t have that company support, you’re not going to get a large turnout. The pilots have bartered for that support a lot better, in my opinion, than some of us maintenance people have.”

The International Women in Aviation Conference itself is a standout event for women in the aviation industry. “If you’re a woman in this industry, it’s the event you want to go to,” says Molly Martin, outreach director of Women in Aviation International (WAI), which puts on the conference. 

Martin says the conference has grown from a couple hundred people to many thousands of attendees in its nearly 30 years.  It draws aviation professionals from all different career types, features chapter events for groups like AWAM, professional development sessions, educational seminars and exhibitors. In addition to the annual conference, WAI offers educational outreach programs and has awarded $11.5 million in scholarships since 1995. Scholarships and awards range from initial flight training and advanced degrees to type ratings or providing equipment for maintenance training. Funding for all of this comes from individuals, WAI membership and industry.

“At WAI, we believe a diverse aviation community is a robust one,” says Peggy Chabrian, WAI president. “An important part of our outreach is our international Girls in Aviation Day activities, where girls ages 8 to 17 are introduced to aviation, both as a career and a lifestyle.” The worldwide event started as a “bring your daughter day” at the International Women in Aviation Conference, but in 2015, WAI decided to expand the event through its worldwide chapter network. The first Girls in Aviation Day had 39 events and 3,800 attendees. This year, WAI expects somewhere in the range of 80 events and 12,000-15,000 attendees.

“For many of these girls, it is the first time they have been near an airplane and are given the opportunity to meet women who are pilots, engineers, maintenance technicians and other women who are in aviation simply for the fun of it,” Chabrian says.

“The really cool thing about [Girls in Aviation Day] is that it doesn’t have to be huge to be noteworthy,” Martin says. “So an event with 25 kids can be as high-impact as an event with 2,000.”

This year’s Girls in Aviation Day will take place Oct. 13, and many WAI chapters and corporate partners have activities planned. United Airlines, which is officially hosting activities at 13 airports across the globe, is heavily involved. “This October, we are excited to once again welcome girls from various organizations to join us across the system to learn from United’s women, shadow their day-to-day roles and hear about various career opportunities available in aviation,” says a United spokesperson. “We also recognize that while we have a uniquely diverse workforce, we also have more work to do to stay on this path and will continue to do all we can to remain a leader in this field.”

Laura Spolar, president of WAI’s Central Florida Chapter and an aircraft maintenance supervisor for United Airlines’ Orlando Technical Operations, has organized events for Girls in Aviation Day in recent years. About 40 girls are recruited from local schools and ROTC programs for a day of activities hosted by groups ranging from the Orlando International Airport fire department and wildlife control to flight instructors and the airport’s fixed-based operator, Signature Flight Support. “I think our chapter probably has the most diverse day because we don’t focus primarily on pilots,” Spolar says. “Our local chapter has such a diverse group that we kind of focus on nontraditional aviation careers.”

One  problem Spolar says she sees with recruiting women to MRO careers is a lack of publicity. “Young girls need to see that not only can you be a pilot, but all the other opportunities available to them in aviation. They have every opportunity that a male has, and they need to see the women who are actually doing it and have been doing it for 20 or 30 years,” she says. “We’ve always been here, but the focus hasn’t always been on us. It’s nice that it’s out there, so the girls get to see that they can do this, too.”

Among international WAI chapters, some of the larger events take place in India and Nigeria. The WAI India Chapter is extending Girls in Aviation Day to a year-long tour covering 17-20 cities in India, which involves bringing girls from local schools on tours at the airport so they can see a variety of aviation careers and hear from professionals in the industry. 

The WAI Nigerian College of Aviation Technology chapter will be hosting 250 girls for a series of lectures and tours of training facilities at the college. Girls will visit the control tower, aircraft and air traffic control simulators, the aircraft maintenance hangar and power systems lab.

Another WAI chapter with an airline partnership is the North Texas chapter. Southwest Airlines supported the chapter’s photo booth during last year’s Girls in Aviation Day, and a spokesperson for the airline says Southwest hopes to provide more this year. The carrier works closely with a number of organizations encouraging women to pursue careers in aviation, such as GenHERation. It also was a bronze sponsor at WAI’s conference, where it hosted a booth and awarded 11 scholarships to help female students pursue aviation careers.

Although American Airlines does not have events planned specifically for Girls in Aviation Day, the airline holds a number of events aimed at the same demographic. The airline recently hosted approximately 50 girls from the Project Scientist STEM camp at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), where girls received comprehensive tours spanning as many areas of the operation as possible, including maintenance. Women leaders from aircraft maintenance, flight service and customer care spoke to the girls about their roles before they all had lunch on a Boeing 787.

A spokesperson for American says the airline has done several other such tours at its hubs this summer, including Girls Who Code in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Girls Inc. of Tarrant County at the airline’s Dallas-Fort Worth hub. During the latter event, participants got first-hand experience learning how flight works and how engines create thrust by building and launching a rocket.

AWAM encourages its chapters to get involved and partner with local WAI chapters to put on events for Girls in Aviation Day. Green says last year an AWAM member in Cincinnati took the cowls off an aircraft engine and was able to give girls a close-up look while explaining the various components and their functions. She adds that AWAM’s Gulf Coast chapter in Alabama has put on an event in conjunction with Airbus the last few years. 

According to Green, AWAM’s biggest activity of this type every year is at the International Women in Aviation Conference. AWAM provides maintenance support for the conference’s “bring your daughter day” and hosts a table where girls are able to make bracelets using wire, wire strippers and crimpers. “It gets the girls to know that tools aren’t scary. The kids love it, and it’s absolutely one of the best activities we’ve done with girls that are younger,” says Green.

In Canada, Elevate Aviation is spearheading efforts to attract and retain women in the industry. The nonprofit, which aims to reach young women through tours, mentorship programs, scholarships and more, recently partnered with Nav Canada to hold an Explore Aviation Summer Camp. A group of 30 14-15-year-old girls were flown to Nav Canada’s facilities in Cornwall, Ontario, where they learned about air traffic control, engineering and tech ops careers within the company. According to Lyne Wilson, assistant vice president for talent management at Nav Canada, the camp targeted this age range to give young women who are interested in technology careers the opportunity to take the required science and math courses before pursuing post-secondary education.

In addition to tours of the Nav Centre and Air Inuit, the summer camp included activities where campers learned about drones, radars and technology. One activity involved building a cable and automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast receiver that campers were able to test to track aircraft flying overhead.

Kendra Kincade, founder and chair of Elevate Aviation, says the Explore Aviation Summer Camp—which was the group’s first—received excellent feedback, and Elevate Aviation plans to hold one again next year. 

In addition to Elevate Aviation’s cross-country tours, Kincade says the nonprofit is looking to launch a five-tier membership program in the fall to focus on improving the success of women already in aviation careers. “We know about a lot of women already in aviation that are a little shy about climbing the ladder and taking on new experiences,” Kincade says. “Even though they want to, it’s sometimes hard to have the confidence to take that step to apply for supervisor or management positions.”

To take a deeper dive into why women are not thriving in or considering aviation careers, Elevate Aviation has begun a three-year project funded by Canada’s Minister of Status of Women, Maryam Monsef. The project, which will collect data to develop recommendations for aviation companies, will be composed of four different phases. 

The first part involves interviews with girls and women across Canada to identify obstacles to their pursuit of careers in the industry. Kincade says Elevate Aviation plans to consult with elementary, high school and post-secondary students and conduct interviews and focus groups at aviation companies to gauge work environments. Once interviews are complete, Elevate Aviation will present an action plan with recommendations for companies. 

The third part of the project will entail monitoring companies that have partnered in the study to see how they are implementing recommendations. Partners include Nav Canada, Porter Airlines, North Cariboo Air and the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association. Kincade says Elevate Aviation is talking with more companies about becoming study partners, specifically those in the MRO segment.

Once this phase is complete, Kincade says the project will assess whether the action plan was effective and determine what else needs to be done. “We will be looking toward where we can go from here, because we certainly don’t want to just stop there,” she says.

As for the Promoting Women in the Aviation Workforce Act, WAI is hoping to similarly leverage the government resources and funding that could become available if it passes the Senate. “We’ve had a lot of conversations about it, and we would love to have the opportunity to be involved with it,” Martin says. “We’re hopeful. We’re all for anything that brings attention and resources to the table to help bring more women into the industry, and we want to be a part of it.”

By Lindsay Bjerregaard
MRO Network