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Women in aviation work to change gender imbalance

Currently 2.8 per cent of AME licence holders are women, according to Transport Canada

By Aliz Tennant and Zoë Ducklow , in Business Feature story Life Technology Transportation , on March 30, 2016

Aircraft mechanic Kelly Lamarche rummages through her old toolbox filled with a mishmash of screwdrivers, ratchets and flexible wrenches. It was in this small, old helicopter hangar – which her dad has owned since she was about six months old – that Lamarche first considered a career in aviation.

One day, while with her dad, she saw a woman working on a plane.

“Wow, that girl is so cool,” Lamarche recalls thinking. “I want to be her when I’m older.”

Six years ago, Lamarche graduated from the B.C. Institute of Technology as the only female aircraft maintenance engineer in her class of 17. Today, she’s the only woman on the shop floor of a repair company at Langley airport, repairing Robinson R22 helicopters.

It’s a similar picture across Canada. Currently 2.8 per cent of AME licence holders are women, according to Transport Canada.

Those low numbers have women in the industry concerned that, 45 years after Maureen Routledge became the first Canadian woman to earn an aircraft maintenance engineer licence, their numbers are still so small that it’s stopping others from entering the field.

It’s not just aircraft mechanics. The whole aviation industry is still heavily dominated by men.

The proportion of women in the aviation industry has barely changed over the past two decades, even though the absolute numbers of women has increased. Between 2001 and 2011, 235 women were hired as aircraft mechanics in Canada. Still, they make up only 6.3 per cent of the workforce of over 16,500 mechanics.

Lamarche says many women just don’t think about careers in aviation, “It’s not an obvious trade unless you know about it.”

Listen:
A female pilot, retired astronaut and space engineer share their thoughts on why they’re still a minority (2’42”)

 

The gender imbalance is what Canada-based organizations like Sky’s No Limit—Girls Fly Too! and the Institute for Women Of Aviation Worldwide are trying to address, by reaching out to girls and showing them that they can have careers in aviation too.

Founder Mireille Goyer began iWOAW in 2010, creating the Women in Aviation Week in March. The grassroots movement has grown worldwide. This year, 120 events were held across four continents, for girls to experience and learn more about the aviation industry, and 44,000 people took part.

Similarly, Sky’s No Limit—Girls Fly Too! is an annual event in March that offers free helicopter rides to women of any age who are flying for the first time. Founder and pilot Kirsten Brazier has seen the event increase in popularity over the past three years, since she moved it to the Lower Mainland from Yellowknife, N.W.T.

At the first event in 2011, she couldn’t convince even one of the plane pilots to come out at -30 C to fly girls. So Brazier flew a helicopter herself to get girls up in the air.

This year’s Sky’s The Limit—Girls Fly Too! event took place at the Abbotsford International Airport with 12 helicopter pilots providing back-to-back flights. Inside the large airplane hangar, experts, schools and volunteer groups had hands-on activities for people to try and talked with them about how they could get involved.

No barriers to entry, just not enough exposure

Isabelle Tremblay demonstrates how the James Webb Space Telescope works, a project she was part of for the Canadian Space Agency.

Retired NASA astronaut Wendy Lawrence and Canadian Space Agency lead engineer Isabelle Tremblay were at Sky’s The Limit—Girls Fly Too! to talk to girls about their experience and show them that there are women in the industry.

Many say there is no reason why women can’t have a career in aviation, yet few seem to see it as an option. Girls may expect the industry to be hostile, but both Lawrence and Tremblay have found it welcoming.

At the Canadian Space Agency, Tremblay worked on the Phoenix Mars lander. It’s a project that realized her childhood dream of building the technology that scientists use to explore other planets. As a child, she was fortunate that her parents took her to air shows and introduced her to professional engineers.

My mother is clearly a feminist, and she wanted us to be exposed to everything,” says Tremblay.

Listen:
Tremblay talks about how she became interested in space (0’58”)

Wendy Lawrence talks to young females about her experience as an astronaut.

“You understand that you have a responsibility,” says Lawrence, one of the few and first women in NASA, “Because you are a trailblazer. And one your goals needs to be to make sure that trail stays open for those who follow you.”

Listen:
Lawrence talks about her childhood dream of becoming an astronaut (0’34”)

The industry needs to do more than welcome

Goyer was never deterred from aviation, but she acknowledges that it can be difficult for others when they don’t see people around them whom they can relate with.

“It is lonely, it is isolated, it’s not fun, and most people don’t seek hardship for a lifestyle,” she says.

In reality, it’s not as hard as it seems. But, according to Goyer, the industry is failing to specifically reach out to women by not showing photos of them on their websites, making it difficult for women to see themselves being happy in aviation.

“You’re communicating for them to stay away,” she says.

Women in aviation are increasing, but the industry is still missing out

“I’ve always heard ‘Women are not interested,’” Goyer says.

Yet the growth of iWOAW suggests there are plenty who are interested. Goyer says 63 per cent of participants from this year’s event told them that they are now considering a career or hobby in the industry after the experience.

Goyer sees a steady increase in the number of women across all roles in aviation. Her aim is not to have equal numbers of men and women, just a better balance. Experts in both aviation and labour economics agree that diverse teams with both men and women are more creative, more productive, and therefore are more profitable.

Lawrence agrees, adding, “Women are about 50 per cent of the population. Why would you want to limit your pool of applicants? Why would you want to limit, more importantly, your pool of talent?”

Flying for the first time

Back at Girls Fly Too! women from all generations were lined up ready for their helicopter ride. Sisters Elizabeth and Olivia Wiebe waited in the chilly wind and wondered what their first-ever flight would be like.

Elizabeth Wiebe takes her first flight at the Sky’s No Limit - Girls Fly Too! event.
Elizabeth Wiebe takes her first flight at the Sky’s No Limit – Girls Fly Too! event.

“Oh my!” said Elizabeth as the engine turned on.

“I’m actually a little nervous,” Olivia said.

Before long, they were strapped into the back of a four-seat helicopter. The helicopter flew the girls over Abbotsford. The sisters were quiet through the 10-minute flight, staring out the windows. Skipping back along the tarmac, they chattered about the experience.

“I’m not scared of heights of anymore!” said Olivia.

Timeline of milestones for women in aviation in Canada