Seventeen-year-old Cassie Lock wants to be a Royal Australian Air Force pilot. So far, the Year 11 student has been told: female RAAF pilots are really rare; most applicants drop out; she shouldn’t take high-level maths for the HSC because it’s hard to get a mark that will raise her Higher School Certificate ranking; and that she’s two centimetres too short.
She’s only somewhat perturbed. Her retorts include: “When I found out that there aren’t many women pilots, I thought that was kind of odd”; “I don’t want to drop out, I want to DO this”; “I’m one of the top maths students at school,” and, “I will grow.”
She recently attended Creating careers and connections for women in the aviation industry, a networking event sponsored by the GE Women’s Network in partnership with the International Aviation Women’s Association (IAWA).
The evening was introduced by GE Aviation’s sales director for Commercial Engines and Services, Keren Rambow—whose own high-flying career has so far included avionics engineering roles with the RAAF, quality-assurance management for the US Marine Corps’ Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 101 and developing a successful aerospace consultancy. Rambow is forming an Australian chapter of IAWA in collaboration with Tamara Bell, executive director of Aviation/Aerospace Australia—to help raise the profile of aviation as an exciting and rewarding career for women.
Their aim at the forum was to start the conversation about how to promote aviation as an enticing prospect for girls, how to support women to thrive in the full gamut of aviation roles, and ultimately how to balance the gender equation in all aspects of aviation endeavour.
“Fundamentally, it’s the right thing to do,” says GE Women’s Network member Matt Rowe, a former RAAF aircraft mechanic who is now senior customer service management manager for GE Aviation. “Everyone, regardless of gender or race deserves an equal opportunity on this earth. I have a daughter, and I want her to have the same opportunities as everybody else.”
Lock arrived at flying as a career option partly under the wing of her grandfather, Jeffrey Lock, a member for 40 years of the Royal Aeronautical Society, who may have ignited the spark in her by taking Cassie to air shows from an early age. “It’s cool to think of how far humans have come, to create such machines,” she says, nominating the F/A-18 Super Hornet, the C-130 Hercules and the F-22 Raptor— “That’s a beautiful aircraft”—as her favoured hangar companions.
A little over a year ago Cassie joined the Australian Air Force Cadets, which is administered and supported by the RAAF, and offers Air Force-interested youth between the ages of 13 and 18 activities such as flying, fieldcraft, firearms safety training, navigation and aeromodelling. She says, “It’s a great way to meet people around the state who have similar interests, and a great way to build leadership skills.”
Marketing aviation’s incredible opportunities to girls
Matt Rowe says, “The key is to grow the pipeline. The only way we can get diversity in industries like aviation is to recruit people who are interested, and that journey starts right back in high school, where young individuals are making decisions and choosing subjects and education opportunities that result in them becoming an aviation technician or a pilot, or any career in the aviation environment,” he explains.
The forum identified visual cues as important to primary-school girls being able to naturally identify with roles traditionally performed by men: if we must have dolls in airport shops, they said, let’s have female dolls in pilot uniform; let’s have animations that depict women role models working as navigators and field-service crews; and classroom maps that pictorially plot pathways, requisite subjects and information sources associated with various careers.
Engineering a flexible work environment for all
“Flexibility is looked at as a weakness, because people think if you can’t be there you can’t be fully engaged in your job. But it may mean you can be more productive by spending your hours in a different way,” says Anna Morris, general manager HR and Culture, Fiji Airways.
The audience agreed that working flexibly is all but unheard of among male employees in aviation. Morris points to follow-the-leader cultures, which could also effectively be deployed to change the norm: “If you want to break that pattern, you need the leaders to grow a pair and challenge the rest,” she said evoking laughter and applause.
“It’s about making the environment right for everybody,” says Nicola Davidson, Qantas head of Customer Experience at Sydney Airport. “I think traditionally flexibility has been associated with caregiving, whether that’s taking care of children or of parents.” She says we need to de-stigmatise flexible working to enrich and enable both men and women.
“It’s really just reframing that discussion and not seeing it as a career-limiting move … ” adds McAdam.
Becoming conscious—not flying blind
Unconscious bias is the diversity phrase of the moment and it can affect every decision men and women make in relation to work. Rowe has distilled the solution down to “education and conversation”.
But because unconscious bias is so insidious it requires follow-up water-cooler conversations to connect that placeholder to actions. In his role with the GE Women’s Network, Rowe makes time to go and talk to other managers. He might say: “Oh, there’s a great opportunity for diversity in the business here,” or “Are you casting the net wide enough for a good diversity mix?” He adds, “Without accusing people of holding these biases, we need to recognise that they’re out there, and we need to know how to manage them.”
He recommends In the eye of the beholder: Avoiding the merit trap as a paper worth reading for its cogent argument that a system based solely on merit won’t allow women to progress through an organisation or an industry with the same chances for promotion as a male would—“it’s because of unconscious biases,” says Rowe.
Raising, praising, recognising and recruiting women with job-appropriate aptitudes and skills can help level those wings—help businesses fly straight for dividends born of diversity.