Interviews

1. Alexandra Karanika, Project Engineer at Hellenic Aerospace Industry, comments on the “gender inequality issue” within the aviation and aerospace sectors.

Q1: It is difficult to believe that in the 21st century, with so much emphasis on gender equality in the workplace, women are still appreciably under-represented in the aviation and aerospace sectors. Why do you think there is such a gender gap? What kinds of challenges or barriers exist?

Even in the 21st century, old cliché and stereotypes are alive: “cars and airplanes are for boys, not for girls”. In Greece, very few women are willing to study aeronautics or follow relevant engineering studies. Consequently, very few women are working in the aeronautical industry. So, the under-representativeness of women is not only due to potential discrimination but due to the low interest of women themselves for the aviation and aerospace sectors.

Q2: What do you think could be done to address this gender imbalance? Are you optimistic that the so-called “glass ceiling”, i.e. the invisible fences blocking women from entering and advancing up within the aviation industry, will eventually be tackled?

Even in our days, the majority of young girls grow up with “girly” role models. For instance, the toy industry is extremely discriminating. Parents do not agree –in general- with this exaggeration but as consumers they do not react as much as necessary in order to change this situation. Also, the activities of children selected by their own parents nourish this imbalance e.g. ballet for girls, karate or flight simulation games for boys etc.
As a consequence, all the girls are very well informed about various personalities of Cinderella, Barbie and other imaginary women role models but ignore real historical persons like Hypatia or Amelia Earhart. I believe that if young women were exposed to successful role models in the aerospace industry, then more young girls would believe non-traditional roles are achievable for them too.

Q3: Throughout your career, have you experienced any discrimination because of your gender or been treated differentially in the work place in comparison to men? Do you think it was harder for you to succeed in this industry because you are a woman?

I didn’t experience extreme incident of discrimination. On the other hand, I feel that in some cases I have been treated differentially in comparison to men. For example, in some cases, my opinions seems to be initially ignored, then in a later stage, adopted by men colleagues but presented as their own, probably assuming that as a woman I should be more patient, less competitive or incompetent to further support my own ideas.

Q4: Part of the “gender gap” problem is down to the lack of visible role models. In an effort to inform, motivate and intrigue young girls to consider the aviation sector as an attractive and fascinating work option, can you share with us what has been the most memorable working experience or person you met, during the course of your career?

I had the chance to meet a very inspiratory woman manager, which was passionate with her almost extremely ambitious visions.  This lady was one of my former directors. She was really hard worker but also a person who believed on other people capabilities and encouraged young people and especially young women, to follow their dreams.

Q5: Have you always wanted to follow a career in the Aviation sector? Was this a childhood dream of yours and what has been your greatest motivation for choosing this profession?

I didn’t have clear childhood dreams about my future career. Of course, I was always a fan of airplanes. I liked to observe them, I was attracted by their power and capacity to fly –actually, flying was a childhood dream- to get you away. In general, I followed steps driven by my love for mathematics which dealt with more as a game rather than a future career path.

Q6: Having succeeded in this “male dominated” sector, what would you like to say to the young girls considering to follow a career in Aeronautics? Do you have any words of advice?

Aeronautics is a scientific sector leading the State-of-the-Art technologies. The majority of engineering and materials innovations are held for aerospace industry. Also, the majority of new environmentally friendly technologies are developed in order to meet the ambitious targets of aeronautical research for the environment and the Health. So, the involvement in aeronautics Research and Development is a continuous challenge, a job that you can never get bored.

 

2. Valérie GUÉNON

Q1: It is difficult to believe that in the 21st century, with so much emphasis on gender equality in the workplace, women are still appreciably under-represented in the aviation and aerospace sectors. Why do you think there is such a gender gap? What kinds of challenges or barriers exist?

Many times, I wondered why girls, who perform better than boys in school, including in math and physics, remain a minority in science and technology, specifically in aviation and aerospace. And yet, I do not know a single woman working in our field who regrets her choice. So, why is our sector not attracting more women?

On another hand, in several European countries, women have outnumbered men in medical studies, which are by far the most difficult, demanding, and the longest studies. Doctors and nurses face physical and psychological pressure and difficult working hours and conditions. And yet we rarely hear that being a hospital doctor or a nurse “it is not feminine” or “is impossible for a mother”. Being an engineer is far easier in that respect. But, in the unconscious mind of many men, women and children, “engineering is not for girls”.

Deeply ingrained stereotypes, unspoken and embedded in the collective mind, take time to change. For centuries, women have been told that they should be caring for others and undemanding. It may be the reason why they want to become underpaid doctors. They have not been told that they can be good at inventing, building things, creating the future, taking risks and leading.

To illustrate this, just watch TV, and count how many times you see news, commercials, movies, TV series or video games that valorize women in such roles. You will be lucky if you find one.

Q2: What do you think could be done to address this gender imbalance? Are you optimistic that the so-called “glass ceiling”, i.e. the invisible fences blocking women from entering and advancing up within the aviation industry, will eventually be tackled?

Things have favorably evolved since I started working almost thirty year ago. One main reason is pro-active policies. For example, it is now the policy of the European commission to ensure an exact parity in the panels of advisory and evaluating experts. This may seem artificial at first, but it is a way to prime the pump for creating role models, trigger self-assurance and inspiration for women. When I was younger I was against affirmative action because I wanted to be recognized for my talents, not for being part of a quota. I changed my mind when I realized that change will not happen on its own, no matter how talented women are. Change needs help.

Another helping factor was that higher managers and decision-makers, mostly men, became aware when they their own bright daughters, after graduating, started facing difficulties in their job interviews or on their career. They started giving women a chance in their own companies. Several of my bosses (all men…) have played supporting, inspirational and encouraging roles.

Solidarity, cooperation and sharing experience between women are necessary. Women networks have emerged and their value-added are now fully recognized. Role models and tutoring by men or women would have been extremely helpful in my younger professional years and should be encouraged.

The support and goodwill of people in charge, pro-action and policies are necessary, but in the end the glass ceiling must be broken by women themselves. Because of education and models surrounding us, we continue being less assertive and limit ourselves. For example, when given a promotion, a woman will more often ask “Can I get a training to do this job properly?”, while a man will more often say “I deserve a salary raise”. Becoming aware of such differences, that we do not see because they are so usual, requires special effort and attentiveness.

The glass ceiling is not proper to aviation industry, it exists in all areas were power, status or money are at stake.

Q3: Throughout your career, have you experienced any discrimination because of your gender or been treated differentially in the work place in comparison to men? Do you think it was harder for you to succeed in this industry because you are a woman?

Ever since I started studying mechanical engineering, I continuously heard stupid things.  A technical drawing professor found it witty to say that “women cannot see in 3D” (I was one of the best in the class and got the technical drawing unit with honors); I got intrusive questions about my private life on job interviews; a worker in a factory expressed his surprise because I asked him a “technical question”; a man, to whom I said I worked on aircraft engines, laughed and asked “do you clean them?”. I was whistled at by workers when going through a manufacturing unit. I have to stop the list but I have countless similar anecdotes.

Such situations, taken one by one, may seem harmless, even funny. But their repetition forms a continuous feedback at women, meaning “you are not fit for the job”. We need determination not to let it grow on us. Fortunately, these situations involved people who did not know me, while most of my bosses and co-workers, who knew my competences, acted with me in the same professional manner as they did with male colleagues.

The only concrete evidence of discrimination I got was when I managed about a hundred people. When looking over the salaries of my teams, I realized that my own salary was not that good. I asked for a raise and I got it. But more importantly, I observed that the salaries of women in my teams were significantly lower, with no reason. I raised several salaries to a fair level, and my company was supportive of this action.

Q4: Part of the “gender gap” problem is down to the lack of visible role models. In an effort to inform, motivate and intrigue young girls to consider the aviation sector as an attractive and fascinating work option, can you share with us what has been the most memorable working experience or person you met, during the course of your career?

My first emotions were when I saw, flying at the Paris airshow, aircraft for which I had designed engine parts, such as the Rafale and the Airbus 321.

Climbing up and inside an A380 on the assembly line to check our equipment being installed was the most impressive technical experience I got. It was also quite physical!

On a different note, thanks to my activities in R&T European and institutional affairs, I was proud to give a presentation at the European parliament a few years ago, to meet MEPs and high level European Commission people, up to commissioners and even the EC president Barroso. More recently, I had the opportunity at the last Paris airshow to present our research to several politicians and members of government. I enjoy very much that aspect of my job.

Q5: Have you always wanted to follow a career in the Aviation sector? Was this a childhood dream of yours and what has been your greatest motivation for choosing this profession?

I do not remember it as a childhood dream. But when I started my Master’s degree at the Mechanical and Aerospace engineering department of the University of Delaware (USA), I started being interested in aviation and space. I was fascinated by the museum of air and space in Washington DC. A friend of mine owned an airplane and we took some rides. When I went back to France, I got 3 job offers. Two of them, one in automobile and the other in military industry, fitted exactly my training but I was irresistibly attracted to the job offer at Snecma, because it was about aircraft engines. It was by far the sector with the highest technology-edge.

Q6: Having succeeded in this “male dominated” sector, what would you like to say to the young girls considering to follow a career in Aeronautics? Do you have any words of advice?

I make the following recommendations to female students, but most of them are also valid for male students:

  • Nobody should decide for you what is important in your life. If you have a dream, go for it.
  • Dare and demand. You are more likely to get what you ask for than what you deserve.
  • Underestimating yourself may leave your dream job to less competent people
  • Salary matters! Be alert and benchmark to make sure you get the right salary.
  • Aim at the best schools and universities and have one or more long-term international experience.
  • Be aware of the differences of education between men and women, not to copy men but to understand what school and university do not teach you and get all the assets on your side. There is a lot of literature on this topic
  • Have as many (or few) children as you wish and do not listen to those who tell you that having a private life will hamper your career.
  • Have fun on your job.

 

3.  Maria Angeles Martin Prats

Maria Angeles Martin Prats, Associate Professor at the University of Seville, gives her opinion on the challenges and barriers women in the aviation and aerospace industry face.

 

Q1: It is difficult to believe that in the 21st century, with so much emphasis on gender equality in the workplace, women are still appreciably under-represented in the aviation and aerospace sectors. Why do you think there is such a gender gap? What kinds of challenges or barriers exist?

Aviation and aerospace sectors have been traditionally areas of men, where the number of women is really low. During the last years, institutions, governments and companies try to improve the current situation in gender with quotas or other recommendations without a real and relevant success. During the last years, more women are found on basic works but only a few of them get to the top as general director or CEOs of companies, Rectors, Directors of Department at Universities.

The main problems are the stereotypes and the idea that we transmit to the girls at home and since they are at the primary school. So, it is very convenient to change the mind of the children and the society in order to achieve equal opportunities for men and women.

The problem is that, nowadays, the relevant positions in companies or Universities are chosen by men. We should try to give more visibility to women in aerospace in order to attract young women to this sector. Once female students see that they can do the work equally to men and at the same to have a balanced professional and familiar life, the number of women in the industry will increase.

 

Q2: What do you think could be done to address this gender imbalance? Are you optimistic that the so-called “glass ceiling”, i.e. the invisible fences blocking women from entering and advancing up within the aviation industry, will eventually be tackled?

I am convinced that the glass ceiling exists and that we should do something to solve the problem. More than quotas, I support the trend of implementing new actions oriented to change the status of women in the aerospace sector. When a woman gets a relevant position at companies or Universities, more will follow. So, it is important to have women in all positions and roles in the society, just like men.

 

Q3: Throughout your career, have you experienced any discrimination because of your gender or been treated differentially in the work place in comparison to men? Do you think it was harder for you to succeed in this industry because you are a woman?

I work at the University and the discrimination is not so evident because the salary is fixed by law. But it is true that for women the treatment is different to men. However, the situation in companies is different in practice and perhaps worse because in most of the cases men are those who distribute the roles.

 

Q4: Part of the “gender gap” problem is down to the lack of visible role models. In an effort to inform, motivate and intrigue young girls to consider the aviation sector as an attractive and fascinating work option, can you share with us what has been the most memorable working experience or person you met, during the course of your career?

I teach aerospace engineering (the only female associate professor out of 54 male professors in my department) and I noticed that many times the girls do not decide to study engineering due to lack of information and the absence of raw models. I teach, I do research, I have created a Spin Off, I have three kids and I am really happy working on aeronautics!

Thanks to my intense and dedicated work and contacts with industry and international universities, I encourage women to study engineering and to change the perceived role of women in the society. We have to contribute to a balanced family and professional life without renouncing our right to high professional positions. The main objective is to have the same professional opportunities.

In order to achieve this objective, I organize seminars, technical courses, international meetings and I show the labs where traditionally only men have been working. Also, and in the middle of a deep economic crisis, I transmit positive attitude to the young people for reaching high academic level, for being more competitive and for going abroad to open their minds and enrich the society and themselves.

In the specific area of aeronautics, I promote, search, I create and launch different international programs for exchange students in undergraduate, Master and PhD levels, not only in Universities but also in companies.

I give seminars at schools and show my experience as a woman working in a world traditionally dominated by men. I show students that they can improve and change the world with their work, living in their own country or in another country where they can find new opportunities for professional growth.

Thanks to women working on engineering we have a very active network made up of women of different countries, religions, culture and races. Every year we organize a global meeting in a different country where each representative (chair) woman of each country explains the situation of women in engineering in her country. This allows us to exchange ideas and to take decisions as a group. This is the best, interesting and fruitful meeting that we have once per year. Then, each chair is the person in charge to transfer and fulfill the ideas of improving to each country (universities and companies).

 

Q5: Have you always wanted to follow a career in the Aviation sector? Was this a childhood dream of yours and what has been your greatest motivation for choosing this profession?

I love aviation since I was a child because my father was a military pilot and I wanted to also become one. However, I finally decided to teach at the University trying to balance my family and professional life and I really enjoy my work.

 

Q6: Having succeeded in this “male dominated” sector, what would you like to say to the young girls considering to follow a career in Aeronautics? Do you have any words of advice?

We need to increase women in aerospace sector, so we should encourage them to study aerospace engineering. Women are complementary to men and all of us can contribute to a better world. They can have everything if they want to without renouncing their right to success in aerospace and in their life.