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Addressing the gender gap: Insights and advice from women in the aerospace industry

On International Women’s Day 2024, Nichola Bates, managing partner at Aerospace Xelerated and leader of global accelerators and innovation initiatives at Boeing, shines a spotlight on some of the remarkable women she has met through the Aerospace Xelerated innovation programme and highlights their suggestions for bridging the gender gap and inspiring more women and girls to strive for success in the industry.

On International Women’s Day 2024, Nichola Bates, managing partner at Aerospace Xelerated and leader of global accelerators and innovation initiatives at Boeing, shines a spotlight on some of the remarkable women she has met through the Aerospace Xelerated innovation programme, and highlights their suggestions for bridging the gender gap and inspiring more women and girls to strive for success in the industry.

The aerospace industry plays an important role in shaping the future of humanity, driving technological innovation, and connecting the world in ways previously unimaginable.

However, it is an industry that faces many challenges – one being the persistent gender gap that not only hinders much-needed workforce development but also stifles innovation and limits the industry’s potential for growth.

It’s no secret the aerospace industry has a chronic problem of gender inequality. Women in aviation continue to comprise less than 20% of the workforce in most industry-related occupations. These numbers are also reflected in the percentage of women who hold leadership and decision-making roles across the aerospace and defence industry.

Aerospace still very much feels like a boys’ club at times. While there are some “women in aerospace” initiatives, it often feels like women are still trying to play the boys’ game rather than transforming the sector into a more modern and dynamic one representative of our world. How do we change this?

This International Women’s Day (IWD), I would like to give voice and share some insights, experiences, and advice from some of the amazing women I have met through the Aerospace Xelerated innovation programme. They are each doing their part as professionals, leaders, innovators, and advocates to break barriers and make a positive impact.

In this article, I will highlight some of their recommendations for addressing the gender gap and motivating other women and girls to pursue a successful future in the industry.

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Nichola Bates, managing partner at Aerospace Xelerated and leader of global accelerators and innovation initiatives at Boeing
Nichola Bates, managing partner at Aerospace Xelerated and leader of global accelerators and innovation initiatives at Boeing
Addressing the gender gap: Challenges and opportunities

We need more STEM initiatives for girls to support the talent pipeline

Amanda Prosser is the vice president of marketing and customer at sees.ai, a UK-based, Boeing-backed business developing core technology to enable autonomous flight. I had the pleasure of working with them during Cohort 3 of the Aerospace Xelerated Programme. When discussing IWD, she recognised the progress women working in the industry have achieved over the past few decades.

“I am well aware that I am standing on the shoulders of my trailblazing predecessors! The experience of women working in aerospace today is undoubtedly different to the experience of women working in the industry, say, 30 years ago,” she said. “I think that the talent pipeline remains a major hurdle facing the aerospace sector in terms of addressing gender diversity. Women continue to be woefully underrepresented in engineering roles. We must encourage more women and girls to study STEM subjects at school and university and take up engineering and technical roles in our aerospace companies.”

Prosser added: “If we want real culture change and the development of world-leading products and services, we need diversity right across the board, and that means companies – large and small – need to commit to investing in building their pipeline of female talent. We all need to proactively engage with educational institutions to identify and nurture female talent early and offer paid work experience opportunities to women and girls to help bring them along the journey.”

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Amanda Prosser, vice president of marketing and customer at sees.ai
Amanda Prosser, vice president of marketing and customer at sees.ai

Equity begins with acknowledging existing disparities

Aiir Innovations is a software company specialised in applying artificial intelligence (AI) and computer vision in the maintenance process. Their co-founder and chief technology officer, Miriam Huijser, is an Aerospace Xelerated Programme Graduate from Cohort 4 and also shared how her experience of being a woman working in a male-dominated industry presented a unique set of hurdles while also empowering her to break barriers and shatter stereotypes.

“It is crucial for companies to foster a culture of equity and inclusivity from the top down. Companies must take it upon themselves to put underrepresented faces in the big decision-making chairs,” she said. “Equity begins with acknowledging existing disparities and actively working to address those. Providing equal access to resources, opportunities, and promotions is important. In addition, creating a truly inclusive workplace culture is vital – one that celebrates diversity, amplifies underrepresented voices, educates, supports and mentors, and eradicates discriminatory practices. We can encourage a more diverse and vibrant aerospace community by dismantling biases and fostering a supportive environment.”

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Miriam Huijser, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aiir Innovations
Miriam Huijser, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aiir Innovations

Understanding diversity creates rich and dynamic surroundings

Ha Nguyen is the chief operating officer and co-founder of Zetamotion, a company that offers Quality Control as a Service, making automated QC faster and easier to deploy, use and scale. Nguyen was part of the Aerospace Xelerated Programme’s Cohort 4 and highlights the importance of diversity on teams working to solve the aerospace industry’s issues.

“By considering the value of a diverse talent pool and creating an inclusive workplace policy, we can indeed foster a more dynamic environment and diversity in aerospace,” she said. “We are confident in women’s abilities and perspectives, so we actively seek women in software development. It’s refreshing to have more women on the team – as much as men and women are similar, we also have differences in outlook and communication styles. This diversity creates rich and dynamic surroundings where everyone is genuinely curious about each other and has something new to learn. While always putting skills and development at the forefront, cultivating an open and supportive workplace where every team member is heard is at the core of our culture.”

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Ha Nguyen, chief operating officer and co-founder of Zetamotion
Ha Nguyen, chief operating officer and co-founder of Zetamotion

Prioritise aspects that may be considered non-traditional within the workplace

Our own Jacqueline Davidson, programme director at Aerospace Xelerated, is a known champion of women working in the industry and also shared some invaluable insights ahead of IWD.

“Addressing elements such as flexible work arrangements, steadfast support for work-life balance, and a robust commitment to community engagement can significantly influence individuals’ choices in their professional pursuits,” she explains. “Beyond factors like promotion potential and salary considerations, candidates often weigh these nuanced aspects when deciding where to work. By recognising the diverse needs of candidates, such as single mothers or those requiring flexible work arrangements due to caregiving responsibilities, the industry can elevate inclusivity by affording individuals the flexibility needed to make a meaningful difference in their professional and personal lives.”

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Jacqueline Davidson, programme director at Aerospace Xelerated
Jacqueline Davidson, programme director at Aerospace Xelerated

We need to create spaces where women feel comfortable and safe

Erica Vlahinos is the vice president of additive manufacturing at Authentise, a data-driven platform managing the manufacturing processes from design to part to increase efficiency and repeatability – another company that was part of our Aerospace Xelerated Programme. For her, it’s imperative that organisations do their part to help women flourish.

“As we’ve progressed as a society, the awareness around what it’s like to be a woman in the world in general has increased,” she said. “The challenges women face in all industries are not an exception here. What I can say is that I am proud of our industry and proud to work in it. In my role, I’ve worked with three or four hundred companies in engineering, and I have heard leaders across the board genuinely working to improve the gender imbalance. What I hope comes next is the realisation that hiring is only step one. Step two is creating an environment where women feel comfortable and safe.”

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Erica Vlahinos, vice president of additive manufacturing at Authentise
Erica Vlahinos, vice president of additive manufacturing at Authentise

We need more investors investing in female founders

Sisi Jin leads the strategy for the APAC region at Aerospace Xelerated, and, for her, investors need to put the money where their mouths are when it comes to working towards resolving the gender imbalance in the industry.

“As a young Asian woman in the aerospace industry, there are many challenges I’ve encountered: it is difficult to earn trust and build connections with different stakeholders,” she said. “It is important to create a community to promote diversity and provide support to diverse groups. Whilst a growing number of investors like Aerospace Xelerated are investing in female founders, we need more of them.”

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Sisi Jin leads the strategy for the APAC region at Aerospace Xelerated
Sisi Jin leads the strategy for the APAC region at Aerospace Xelerated

With the correct leadership, the balance between genders is inevitable

Dr Diana Deca is the chief executive of neurobotx, an Aerospace Xelerated Programme Graduate (Cohort 3). She believes great talent comes hand in hand with great leadership.

“In our team, we’ve seen amazing female talent in machine learning, simulation, marketing and data science, leadership, and administration,” she explains. “With the correct leadership, the balance between genders, perspectives, and approaches is achieved naturally and is inevitable. We’ve seen other team members and our network promote these amazing women in positions of power and boost their careers, and we are happy to work together with our peers toward achieving more of that. We are confident that there is progress in that direction in aerospace, and we’re happy to do our part to navigate it.”

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Dr Diana Deca, chief executive of neurobotx
Dr Diana Deca, chief executive of neurobotx

Uplifting words of advice for women in the industry

Veena Rao, head of portfolio management at Aerospace Xelerated, recalls the challenges she’s encountered that are associated with the industry’s lack of diversity.

“Gender biases have been apparent at times, emphasising the urgency for change,” she said. “I’ve used these instances as catalysts to advocate for greater inclusivity and to demonstrate that diverse perspectives are vital to the aerospace sector’s innovation and success. My advice to women entering the aerospace industry is to be prepared for a challenging yet rewarding journey. Pursue education and skills development passionately, seek out mentorship, and actively challenge stereotypes. Recognise that your unique perspective is an asset to an industry that desperately needs diverse voices. Don’t be afraid to take your seat at the table.”

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Veena Rao, head of portfolio management at Aerospace Xelerated
Veena Rao, head of portfolio management at Aerospace Xelerated

Jacqueline Davidson added: “For women considering a career in aerospace or any predominantly male-dominated field, my advice revolves around cultivating a diverse array of mentors. Beyond the instrumental guidance for professional advancement, it is crucial to discern individuals with the transformative capacity to act as advocates, effecting positive change in your career trajectory. Equally, if not more significant, is the identification of mentors attuned to guiding you comprehensively in various facets of life.

Karren Jensen, chief executive of Conductor Software – another Aerospace Xelerated Programme Graduate (Cohort 4) – said: “As a woman leading a tech company, I have often experienced that unless I am specifically introduced as the CEO, men overtly direct their conversations and turn their bodies to a male colleague or associate, assuming they’re the CEO. The lack of visibility of women-leading organisations and innovation in aerospace perpetuates this myth. I’ve learned it is important not to take these experiences personally. Instead, I use them as fuel for our work at Conductor, namely to ensure all people – not just women – are given equal opportunities to participate in and progress their careers in aerospace.”

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Karren Jensen, chief executive of Conductor Software
Karren Jensen, chief executive of Conductor Software

Dr Mariam Ketait, global accelerators and innovation programmes lead (META) for Aerospace Xelerated, concluded: “I remember being the only woman in many rooms, first in surgical wards and later in tech events and boardrooms. One of the things that helped me was to always remember that I was a professional following my passion, and in remembering my strengths and purpose, I managed to continue to drive change in those rooms. Sometimes, my voice was not heard or made insignificant, but I persisted in speaking, writing, and sharing my perspective fuelled by my passion for growth and change. I encourage all women to focus inwards, shine outwards, and examine every voice that tells them that ‘she can’t do it’ and wonder – what if there was a different possibility here?”

Dr Mariam Ketait, global accelerators and innovation programmes lead (META) for Aerospace Xelerated
Dr Mariam Ketait, global accelerators and innovation programmes lead (META) for Aerospace Xelerated
DID YOU KNOW…
Aviation Business News (ABN) is highlighting the staffing crisis in aviation this year with our Best Places To Work In Aviation awards which will celebrate those companies that are successfully driving new talent into the sector and retaining valuable skilled staff.
The deadline for firms to enter is April 5. Click here to register.

 

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