Recently members of the Lewis University Aviation and Transportation Dept. were asked by a major carrier to come up with some contemporary research questions. The air carrier representatives did not specify what discipline of aviation to focus upon. New aerospace technologies, “Green” initiatives, flight crew management, air traffic control improvements and safety issues were all considered. However, when we met with airline representatives to discuss the academic research projects, they made their intentions perfectly clear. Why are women not competing for the high-paying, technologically sophisticated careers within aviation and aerospace maintenance? Lewis committee members were shocked. It was after all, an obvious question. Needless to say, a quantitative or qualitative study that revolves around societal or gender issues is not our area of expertise. The Psychology, Sociology, Gender Studies, or History departments get that privilege. However, we were very intrigued and the question is incredibly valid.
Ironically, the numbers back it up, “According to data released from the FAA, there are 5,734 certificated women mechanics and 1,800 repairmen compared to a total of 313,032 certificated male mechanics (2005).” While numbers of women in the cockpit have steadily increased, numbers have remained minuscule within maintenance. However, the airlines, major cargo haulers, aircraft manufacturers and aerospace technology companies desperately want to increase their numbers. Why? Part of it has to do with diversifying a traditionally male dominated workforce. Diversity in any business organization electrifies productivity, imagination, innovation, and morale. The larger issue is that many of the tasks that maintenance technicians perform require responsible, articulate, intelligent individuals. Women possess these skills in absolute parity with men. Furthermore, male technicians are filling up hangars nationwide and overseas. So the airlines are taking action to proactively fulfill future aviation and aerospace technician needs and women are a perfect fit. Industry and BLS projections still show a shortfall of 600,000 AMT’s over the next twenty years. Furthermore, the technological requirements of qualified AMT candidates are going to be incredible. Fly-by-optic’s, space tourism, commercial exploration, nano-technologies, organic composites, and scramjet propulsion are just a few of the advanced technologies that AMT’s will be required to comprehend in the 21st Century. Women are the perfect demographic to step up and take advantage of the void that aviation and aerospace companies will encounter. Most women not only start college, but finish, and with higher GPA’s than men. Also women, whether us men want to admit it, call in sick less frequently, take tasks more seriously, take fewer risks, are less likely to stray from company policies, and stay with employers longer.
The detraction for women is well documented. The “blue collar” mentality that is pervasive within aviation hangars and flight-lines keeps women from applying for these jobs. As long as the A&P Mechanic perception of an unskilled, unsophisticated, uneducated mechanic is perpetuated, the more difficult it is to quantify pay raises and career advancement. Women see the “mechanic perception” and simply avoid the field. Harassment, gender-centric rhetoric, the physical and tactile demands of the job, and the stereotyping of a woman’s ability to navigate a successful career and home life has dissuaded many women. These circumstances have changed dramatically over the last two decades. Federal and state legislation, OSHA, human resource policies, and the technological advances in aviation and aerospace, have dramatically minimized this stigma. The “Glass Ceiling” for women in aviation and aerospace technology is broken. Women technicians in Union environments will receive equal pay to men, equal vacation time, equal benefits packages and FMLA benefits should they require time off for pregnancy. In management, women will receive equal opportunities to excel in their careers based on merit, and no longer have to worry about male discrimination in the workplace without severe penalties for the perpetrator. Even “whistleblower” protections have been bolstered, guaranteeing immunity. One woman said when asked about the challenges in aviation and aerospace technology maintenance, “the challenge came from learning what my limits were, both on an interpersonal level and physically. It took me time to give myself permission to ask for help, in moving huge stands or loosening corroded bolts. What I realized is that in this business every one asks for help, guys much bigger than me would ask for assistance with moving these stands; it was the wise thing to do. As women we can make ourselves ‘outsiders’ in lots of different ways. When we become aware that it is not the ‘guys’ but ourselves who are creating the distances at work, it makes a tremendous difference. Some very patient men taught me that. We are all tested in this industry. Each of us must be tested, because it’s a dangerous job and lives depend upon our knowing the weaknesses and strengths of the other people we work with. It’s important not to take it personally.”
Women have been forming organizations as well. Women in Aviation International, and the Association for Women in Aviation Maintenance have been actively pushing women to the forefront of aviation and aerospace. Even PAMA, the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association has put together scholarship packages and is embracing women to join their association. The upside is huge, scholarship money for women wanting to pursue careers in aviation maintenance is substantial. In an article by Barb Zuelke, she states that one young technician, “received 14 aircraft maintenance (plus one flight training) related scholarships in the last 2.5 years.” These scholarships included, “factory training for the Lear 31a at Bombardier in Texas; Citation V training at CAE SimuFlite in Texas; Pratt & Whitney training on the PW530A/535A Turbofan engine in Montreal, Canada; and Abaris for composite training in Reno, Nevada….an AWAM scholarship from Aviation Learning for maintenance-related training courses on CD-ROM that helped her prepare for the actual A&P test.”
Women in Aviation International are also providing huge opportunities for women, “by 2013 the organization had given away more than $8 million to help members reach their dreams. At this year’s WAI conference, which marked the 25th gathering, they will give,”more than $77,000 in maintenance scholarships alone.” The conference included 10,000-plus members that represent, “the broad spectrum of aviation — recreational, corporate, commercial, and military. They include aeronautical engineers, astronauts, pilots, maintenance technicians, educators, air traffic controllers, avionics technicians, airport managers, dispatchers, high school and university students, air show performers, historians, authors, airport managers, flight attendants, and enthusiasts.” On the technical side women are also being helped with STEM initiatives, “More women are becoming mechanics and dispatchers, and a new emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) curricula in schools offers hope for more rapid growth in the coming years.”
I think its also important to remember the contributions women have made in the past. In reality just who made, and delivered, those crucial aircraft that were vital to America’s victory during World War II. When men went off to fight, it was up to women to fill key technological roles to support the ongoing war effort. Many, including the factories and industrial bosses seriously doubted that women were up to the task. As history has shown us repeatedly, women proved incredibly technologically savvy. Women supplanted men in the factories of Ford, Boeing, North American, and Lockheed, and proved incredibly productive. Women surpassed all expectations and the planes were built in huge numbers and with minimal anomalies. Many nicknamed them, “Rosie the Riveter,” these Greatest Generation of women were an integral component of winning the war, and changed the course of history.
So it goes without saying that women are capable of successfully performing the job of an aviation and aerospace technician. Contemporarily, the scholarships and organizations are there to help them succeed in college. More importantly, employers are craving their participation. So why aren’t more women entering the field in the 21st Century? Things are improving; more women have entered military services over the last 14 years than any other time in history. Many women chose aviation and aerospace careers during their service. As women leave the services they can see an easy transition into civilian technical aviation roles. However, most servicemen and women will require more training and a degree to stay competitive over the next twenty years. Aviation and aerospace technology is advancing exponentially. Excellent G.I. benefits should help them accomplish this goal. With the scholarship potential, preferred industry hiring and positive job outlook, the future for women in aviation maintenance is excellent. The fruits of an aviation and aerospace degree can give women a career supplying them with very high yield.