To mark International Women’s Day today (8 March 2021), Aviation Business News has created a week-long web series in which we meet some of the women making their mark on an industry typically seen as dominated by men. We begin with the fearless and fascinating Julie Dickerson, chief executive officer of Shannon Engine Support (SES).
As the head of a company specialising in providing spare engine lease solutions to CFM56 and LEAP operators, the South African-born Dickerson (pictured below) is no stranger to taking charge. “A lot of my job is leading the team, making sure that I’m setting the tone and direction for the business, liaising with the shareholders or the board,” she explains.
Dickerson may have found a lot of success in her role, but it wasn’t exactly where she imagined she’d be when she was making her first tentative steps in the industry. She modestly puts her accomplishments down to “luck and chance”.
An unconventional path
Moving with her husband to the Republic of Ireland with a then 10-week-old baby, Dickerson quickly knew that she wasn’t a stay-at-home mum. After finding a job advert in The Irish Times for a Six Sigma project manager at GECAS, Dickerson encountered an industry she knew nothing about.
“At the time, websites were just one page, they just kind of gave a briefing, and I went and I knew nothing. I didn’t even know the industry existed, and that’s why I say it was luck and chance. It was the type of role that interested me because I’d already been doing IT project managing in a bank before.”
Dickerson’s responsibilities included operations, risk management, insurance and receivables, and she was able to work with a lot of the teams within the business before moving into the engineering business five years later, in 2002, where she quickly discovered she “didn’t fit the mould”.
“When I joined GE I was sort of told that these are future leaders and so I really believed that,” Dickerson explains.
With an e-commerce degree majoring in economics she found that a staff of engineers, accountants or those with specialities dominated the business, but even with her unconventional background she became the lead in integrating business into GECAS systems, which gave her exposure on the technical commercial side of the company.
It was her own boss at the time that saw the leadership potential in Dickerson and encouraged her to pursue it.
“[He] really believed in women and promoting them and said he just saw the leadership in me. From the start of my career I’ve always said I wanted to be a leader, my interest has always been in leadership and I read all the books and articles. So when he asked me if I was interested in the role of general manager for the GECAS engine leasing business I moved into that role.”
In 2013, the role for CEO of SES came up. As a joint venture business between GE and Safran, the same man asked if Dickerson was interested. The rest, as they say, is history.
Seeing is believing
According to recent research by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), only three per cent of Airline CEOs and COOs are women. That number rises to a mere 8 per cent for CFOs. Another organisation, STEM Women, similarly found that the percentage of female engineering professionals was 10 per cent.
With figures like this, it’s no surprise that organisations such as the UK-based Women in Aviation and Aerospace Charter (WIAAC) are so important. Co-chair and Rolls-Royce’s chief customer officer, Jacqui Sutton (pictured below), meets quarterly with representatives from government, academia, relevant trade bodies and companies across the industry to discuss progress and objectives.
“Ultimately, our aim is to support diversity in the sector, showcase female role models, and support organisations in the progression of women into senior roles within aviation and aerospace. The charter isn’t a piece of paper to sign and be forgotten about, but gives signatories real and achievable commitments to ensure that more women enter into an industry that it feels open and accessible,” Sutton explains.
And making it accessible, and something that people believe they can get into, and enjoy, is something the industry desperately needs.
“I think you’ve got to start young,” says Dickerson. “You’ve got to help people believe that they can [make it in the industry]. I think that one of the big challenges that a lot of people have, and we think it’s only women, but men have it as well, is imposter syndrome. It’s that fear that you’re going to be found out that actually you aren’t the expert. So it is a lot about giving people that self-confidence.”
Dickerson says that she was fortunate to have that confidence instilled in her by her boss at GECAS, who gave her that first step into leadership roles and was also there as a coach and mentor. Most importantly, he would make sure that she had the self-confidence to believe in herself.
“He would say ‘I believe in you, I know you can do this’. And I think we need to be doing that with women,” Dickerson adds. But she makes it clear that women also need to play a part and put themselves forward for the roles they have the capacity to fill. “It can be hard. Even if you don’t have a victory in a role, you just need to keep trying. This hasn’t been easy for me, aviation isn’t a walk in the park and I didn’t stroll into this role or have it handed to me on a plate but it feels more rewarding when you work for something.”
Women should embrace that fact, she emphasises. Women should not consider themselves unusual at conferences, for example, but rather as being memorable. Women should dive into opportunities, she advises, not as a woman but as an aviation person because ultimately, we’re all in the same industry.
A time for change
Dickerson also believes there is scope to change attitudes around networking, a valuable skill in any industry. She believes that women network differently to men, and it is not always easy for women to go and have a beer at the bar.
“We still have to consider that our networking isn’t as natural as that. I’ve been to a couple of events with my husband and everybody immediately goes in to start asking him stuff. He always says he doesn’t talk engine, and then they realise.”
For most people, that is still the natural tendency, and Dickerson admits that she still needs to stop herself sometimes. But as more women join the industry, it will naturally become less of a challenge, and change is happening.
“There’s a lot of CEOs who have daughters so you see their gender views start to soften because they begin to realise that perhaps some of the practices they’re used to, they wouldn’t want their daughters to be put through,” she explains.
Dickerson has also found that female leaders bring a different style of leadership, one that the industry will start to adapt to.
“I know that for myself, because if I look at my career in aviation, so many people move through because of their specialist knowledge in aviation. When you start to get a generalist – if I can call myself that – who’s a leader, you start to see that actually a generalist can do this because you call together the specialists to get to the right solution,” she comments.
And it’s not just attitudes to leadership or women in general that are changing. Another necessary change has been the working environment due to the current Covid-19 pandemic, and that could benefit women. A working day that was originally designed around men can now be more inclusive. Dickerson believes that when office working resumes, workplaces will have made a “huge step” forward in terms of attitudes to parenting, which will naturally encourage more women to get involved.
No matter the current changes, or changes that will happen further down the line, women now have a bigger voice than ever in aviation. It is equally important that we continue to encourage them into the industry, Dickerson says, and give them their turn to speak up. Ultimately, as she quite rightly puts it, women “have got to sit at the table, take our place and put our hand up”.