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Women in Aviation: The Importance of Exposure

The aviation industry is no stranger to criticism about gender inequality. So, why does it remain so difficult to even out the field?
March 9, 2020
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JMEC_Women_Aviation

Despite many efforts, gender parity in aviation remains a work in progress. The industry is still male-dominated – the dismally low number of women in technical positions such as pilots, aircraft mechanics, aircraft inspectors, traffic controllers and engineers proves it. It isn’t for a lack of trying, though. Many major organizations are introducing excellent initiatives to encourage women to enter the industry. It may be, however, that retention, rather than attraction, and earlier exposure are necessary to supplement these initiatives and render them more effective. 

Facts and figures

Over the past 25 years, the number of women enrolling in engineering degrees has continued to increase, especially at the master’s and doctorate levels. That said, an estimated 40 per cent of women who enroll in engineering programs never finish or never work in their field, according to a presentation made by Nadya A. Fouad, PhD, at the 2014 annual American Psychological Association Convention. 

I never considered engineering as a career option because I assumed the field was only accessible to people highly gifted in math, physics, and tech. I never thought that these subjects could be learned through practice and experience.

The March 2018 Labour Market Information Report from the Canadian Council for Aviation & Aerospace states that 30 per cent of jobs within the industry are held by women. However, when we leave out administrative positions, and focus solely on technical positions, those numbers consistently remain under 10 per cent. As of 2018, only 15 per cent of Canadian air traffic controllers and 18.7 per cent of total personnel in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) were women, according to an article from Skies Magazine titled Minding the Gap: Women in Aviation. Despite being low, these numbers are among the highest the industry has ever seen.  

Deterring factors 

Young women preparing to choose their career path are often unaware of the many different options the aviation industry has to offer. Andrea Cartile, a PhD candidate in Aerospace Engineering at Concordia University says she fell somewhere among this group. “I never considered engineering as a career option because I assumed the field was only accessible to people highly gifted in math, physics, and tech. I never thought that these subjects could be learned through practice and experience.” Ultimately, she chose to study engineering specifically because it would pose a challenge. As the point of education is to learn, it needs to be made clear that there is no expectation to be a technical genius prior to studying in fields like aviation. “An interest in learning about how things work and some perseverance can lead to many types of engineering careers”, Cartile says. This is particularly important for women, who are less likely to receive specific exposure and encouragement to enter such industries than their male counterparts. 

Globally, countries can agree that a plan should be put in place to promote the field to girls and women, and perhaps aspire towards a common growth goal across the globe.

Stephanie Fiore Stephanie Fiore

International Implications 

Gender inequality in aviation is a global issue, says Stephanie Fiore, a Concordia undergraduate studying Engineering. She completed her high school education in Italy and says she didn’t receive much support in pursuing a career in aviation. Part of that is because of the competitive nature of the industry in Italy, however she says that another reason was due to her gender. “I’m a woman, so it would be hard. They trust us a little bit less,” she says. Knowing this encouraged her move to Montreal to complete her post-secondary education, where she says the situation is easier to navigate for women who have decided to enter the industry, partially owing to the fact that Montreal is a major industry hub. This poses the question, how can we make equality in aviation a worldwide priority?

Nadia Bhuiyan Nadia Bhuiyan

Nadia Bhuiyan, Vice-Provost, Partnerships and Experiential Learning, and Professor of Mechanical, Industrial and Aerospace Engineering at Concordia University's Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science, says that there are going to be differences from country to country based on available resources. “Globally, countries can agree that a plan should be put in place to promote the field to girls and women, and perhaps aspire towards a common growth goal across the globe.” 

Any industry needs diversity, it brings in different perspectives, knowledge, skills and life experiences

Mitigating actions 

Society as a whole needs to work collectively to continue the search for gender equality in aviation. Andrea Cartile says that she takes on part of the responsibility by educating herself. Statistically, women in technical fields are more likely to be asked to take on administrative and organizational tasks, and she feels that it’s important for women to be aware of that. “As someone who identifies as female, familiarizing myself with the statistics I risk falling into can help better inform me as to whether I want to accept or decline these tasks.”

It is also crucial that the industry makes space for women so that they can contribute to enriching the environment at all levels of the corporate ladder. The idea is that if industry were to refocus its efforts from attracting to retaining women in the industry by examining internal practices, improved representation of women in senior roles would provide career path examples for women just starting out in the field. “Any industry needs diversity, it brings in different perspectives, knowledge, skills and life experiences,” Bhuiyan says. 

Most importantly, early exposure to technical fields, like the aviation industry, is key. Stephanie Fiore is a prime example. Although she had always had a keen interest in aerospace, she says that she didn’t feel that it was a viable career option for her. However, at age 15 she attended a conference featuring the first female astronaut. “That’s when I thought, ‘Oh, I could actually have a career in aviation or aerospace,’” she says. That singular experience was a turning point in her career path – she had originally considered studying psychology because it was something that was more “expected” of her. Fiore attended the conference that day by chance rather than by design of her education or the industry, but it changed the course of her life to see someone doing what she thought she couldn’t.  

 “The goal shouldn’t be to get more women in aviation just for the sake of having women in aviation,” Bhuiyan says. “To me the real issue is providing the exposure to girls at a young age so that they realize that it exists as a perfectly viable career option for both men and women, and that everyone can be equally successful.” 

> Watch the March 10, 2020 Women in Aviation Roundtable Discussion

> Learn more about JMEC's aviation management programs

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