Cleared for takeoff

Women’s role in aerospace & aviation has changed, but there’s still plenty of room to grow

By Barb Bowen

It was nearly 32 years ago when I started my career in aerospace in Manitoba. That first job was great! I started working for a new venture, the Esso Avitat fixed base operator (FBO), at Winnipeg International Airport. It was basically a gas station that served airplanes, and I started by learning the ropes on how to track fuel and other commodities. To start, I was based in the tank yard and I dealt with the drivers who filled up the fuel trucks that directly serviced the aircraft, so I never really saw the pilots themselves.

I started there before it turned it into what it is today! Over the years, the Avitat has transformed into a ‘Ritz Carlton’ of private air terminals for pilots and private aviation customers. Like the aviation industry in Manitoba, it flourished because of innovation and the sense of integrity that made us a community. I worked there as the Senior Customer Service Representative. I really enjoyed my job and really liked what I was doing, but I soon discovered that I needed to ‘spread my wings’ if I wanted to fly higher in the industry. Some opportunities would come up once in a while, but I wasn’t in a position to take them on. I didn’t have the means to purchase a local franchise and I had family commitments here in Manitoba, so moving just wasn’t an option.

You know the saying ‘every cloud has a silver lining?’ Well, the best part of aviation is seeing so many clouds (metaphoric or otherwise!) and finding so many silver linings! In my case, my silver lining was hearing about a job opportunity at Manitoba Aerospace. My friend told me I should apply. I did and I got the position. That was over 20 years ago, and I’ve been there ever since!

The draw to aviation

I’ve always loved airplanes and the idea of flying. When I think back, I might have become a pilot, but when I was in high school, it really wasn’t seen as something that women could – or should – do. 

Still, I have found a way to get close to the airplanes. If there’s one regret I have, though, it’s that I didn’t consider becoming a pilot or even pursuing my private pilot’s license. Although, I probably couldn’t have afforded to do it anyway; it’s very expensive!

Tell the truth, the whole truth

There’s another reason I love aviation and aerospace: it’s a very honest industry. It’s an industry where you can’t cut corners, because if you do, you’re taking the chance of airplanes falling out of the sky all around the world. 

When there’s maintenance to be done, that maintenance is done, where you might have other industries or businesses that say, ‘Oh, well… the truck might need to be worked on, but we’ll wait for a few weeks.’ If a truck breaks down on the highway, you just pull over to the side of the road. It’s no big deal. But it’s definitely not that easy when you’re flying through the sky!

In the aviation and aerospace industry, the culture is focused on honesty and integrity; they’re very accountable for errors. If something goes wrong, somebody takes responsibility and owns the mistake. They can say that it was their error, and they’re not penalized for the honesty. They might be corrected for inexperience, but they’re not made to feel that they shouldn’t have spoken up.

Start at the beginning

When I started my job, I was responsible for coordinating training; which is still part of my responsibilities today. At that time, we coordinated training programs for individual companies and groups of companies. For example, if one company needed employees for a specific role or with a certain skill – like TIG welders – they would come to us at Manitoba Aerospace, and I would arrange for training programs to be offered.

Of course, training programs are not cheap, and they usually need a certain number of students (trainees) in order to be financially viable, so that’s where my coordinating efforts would come into play. I worked with companies, subject matter experts, trainees and funders to provide relevant training and quality employees. 

New connections

Shortly after I started at Manitoba Aerospace, I began to work very closely with the Centre for Aboriginal Human Resource Development (CAHRD), which, in the years since, has really been a rewarding relationship. In fact, it’s probably the longest-standing partnership in my career.

We started helping Indigenous people get the skills they needed for jobs in the aerospace industry, and over nearly 22 years, we’ve prepared more than 230 Indigenous people for careers in all corners of the industry. Many of these individuals had never considered aviation and aerospace as a career path before. 

Another partnership I’ve really enjoyed is with Tec-Voc High School in Winnipeg, and we’ve got more than 700 people from our programs now working in the industry. The Tec-Voc partnership is particularly meaningful for me since it’s right in my community. We’re showing the students there are plenty of rewarding careers that don’t require you to be an engineer, pilot, or rocket scientist, to get a great job in aerospace. There’s room for everyone. 

It used to be a boy’s game

When I first started in aviation, it was rare to have anyone other than white, male pilots come through our facility. Today, it’s changed, and it continues to change. Maybe not as quickly as we’d like – but things are still progressing.

I’m a member of an organization called Women in Aviation, International, which is an organization for women who work in our industry. They are not just pilots, but also aircraft maintenance engineers (AME) and professional engineers. Northern Spirit is the name of the Manitoba chapter, and we work on various projects to encourage girls and women who are interested in becoming pilots and AMEs. There are scholarships, information sessions, and even mentorship opportunities available to young women. 

I also find there are more women entering the field as professional engineers, or other positions on the shop floor. There’s lots of opportunity for women to enter the industry. 

Culture shift

In the last 20-odd years, I find the culture in the industry has changed for the better. Companies are much more welcoming to women. For example, the attitude that young women shouldn’t be hired because they might start a family and have to take maternity leave is changing. 

Now, companies just figure out how to make it work, and they see women as valuable members of the team. Truthfully, it’s not necessarily any ‘official’ barriers that keep women out of the industry. It’s often just perceptions, unintended challenges, and even offhanded remarks that can turn them away.

About 15 years ago, I met a young woman who was in a welding class and the instructor made some comments about women welders. It made the student feel that he didn’t think her skills were good enough and that she wasn’t valued as a member of the class. She was (rightfully) upset and was ready to quit the program. 

She called and spoke to me, and we talked a long while. I went and spoke to the instructor and he apologized, saying he hadn’t meant to come across ‘that way.’ When I spoke to the student again, I was able to mediate a conversation that helped the instructor and supported the student’s voice, allowing them to sort things out. 

Today, this student is now a welding instructor herself and she credits the program from CAHRD and Manitoba Aerospace and the time I took to work with her as not only getting her into welding but keeping her in welding to this day.

It’s situations like this that make me wonder just how many women (and even men) we lose because of these situations? How many really good people are simply walking away because they or others can’t see themselves in the industry or because they didn’t have someone to talk to?

Making a difference

Aviation and aerospace have so many great jobs available for women, but we really need to get the word out in a big way, and we need to reframe the impact that these jobs have on the world at large.

I read an article a number of years ago that stated that women tend to want jobs and careers where they feel they’re making a difference in others’ lives. That’s why healthcare, education, and hospitality tend to be seen by women as more ‘positive’ or ‘plausible’ career paths.

Yes, this is a generalization, but there is some amount of truth to this. So, how do we do this in aerospace?

Well, we need to really show that every person in the industry – from the high-profile pilots to the shop floor workers and maintenance people in the background – are working to ensure the safety and security of everyone in the sky; that the industry is about keeping people and aircraft safe which is a powerful way to help others.

Seeing yourself

One thing has become super clear to me during my years in Aerospace. It’s been what drives my work that I continue to do with Manitoba Aerospace. 

That thing? If you don’t see yourself or someone like you in a job, a career, a business… anything really – you often aren’t going to consider it as a path – or a goal – for yourself.

Putting it another way, if you are a girl or a woman and you don’t see women pilots, engineers, or mechanics, when you are deciding what you want to do for a career, then you probably won’t consider pursuing those careers. That’s what it was like when I was younger and looking into my future career path.

If I had seen women pilots when I was a teenager, maybe it could have given me more ‘hope’ or ‘possibility’ to think about.

Opening doors… and minds

Women in Aviation, International holds regular events where we bring young girls and women behind the scenes of the aviation industry and show them the opportunities that exist for them. It’s one thing to talk about women in the industry, but when young girls meet the professional women of the industry, possibilities unfold.

We have pilots, aircraft maintenance professionals, engineers, and technicians there, and they’re all women. They’re in their uniforms, talking to the girls, and they’re also taking them through hands-on activities in different areas. So, the message gets out there. Girls can do this; women can do this!

I think we need to approach the ‘women in industry’ subject in this multi-pronged, multi-faceted way. We need the ‘obvious’, visible messages and examples but we need to normalize it too. Companies can demonstrate that women in aviation and aerospace is a normal part of business. 

It just makes sense

It amazes me that we still find ourselves in these discussions about getting more people from specific populations into the industry. I mean, there are smart, hard-working people everywhere, and we just need to be open and willing to give everyone a chance who wants one. The best and the brightest are what we need, and we need more of them everywhere.

Yes, the pandemic has put the brakes on the aviation industry. If people aren’t flying, then you don’t need as many pilots, there are fewer aircraft that need active maintenance, and everything else down the line just follows a similar path. However, once we get through this situation, there is going to be a big recovery.

Before everything changed, there was already a shortage of skilled labour in aviation (and pretty much every other manufacturing sector too), so the recruitment of people into the sector – women, Indigenous people, recent immigrants, et cetera – is continuing.

The downturn for aviation could be a bit longer than for other industries, and that might mean some who have been laid off for almost a year could be facing more time yet without work. Some are going to hang in there, but others might move on to something else or retire. There is going to be opportunity, but it might just look a bit different.

Looking back to look forward

When I look back, the thing I’m most proud of is the work of our team at Manitoba Aerospace does with the Indigenous community through the partnership with CAHRD and other Indigenous organizations. The positive impact that my relationship with CAHRD has had, not only for the Indigenous trainees in the programs, but for the companies that are finding skilled professional workers from communities they might previously have ignored fills me with pride. We’ve been able to change minds and open hearts across the industry. 

It’s been a heck of a journey so far, but even the greatest journeys will eventually have a destination of some sort. However, I’ve still got lots of work to do. 

While I can’t yet share the details of some of the projects I’m currently working on, I can tell you that they’re all very close to my heart and are building on the great work that the Manitoba Aerospace team has delivered over the years.

When these projects take off and start flying on their own, and I can see that they’re changing peoples’ lives for the better, that’s when I’m going to call it a wrap. That’ll be my legacy; my ‘love letter’ to the industry that has been a part of me for so many years. 

Let’s not forget, though, people say retirement is when you get to do all the really fun stuff. Maybe that pilot’s license is still waiting for me somewhere. You just never know! 

Barb Bowen is Director of Special Projects with Manitoba Aerospace, a membership-based, not-for-profit organization representing the local aerospace and aviation sector, driving the sustainable worldwide business growth of Manitoba companies through human resource development, collaboration, innovation and supply chain expansion.