ISTAT News | 17 March 2019
Jetrader: Women in Aviation
This article was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of Jetrader magazine.
Marilyn Gan, Mary Prettyman and Mylène Scholnick are three successful leaders in the field of aviation. They also happen to be women. And while the landscape of women in the industry is broadening, aviation, like many technical fields, is dominated by men — especially at the top. The reasons for this are complex and deep-seated in our society. Women encounter roadblocks to success that their male counterparts do not. There isn’t a party to blame or a quick fix; however, there is a growing mindset that greater diversity in all industries is worth achieving. The path forward isn’t crystal clear, but women in aviation forge ahead.
Balance and Support
Gan, Prettyman and Scholnick agree that one of the biggest struggles in their careers has been balancing family and work. In this industry, travel and moving is the norm, which can put a strain on family life.
“We all acknowledge in this industry that you do, at times, have to sacrifice a lot of your personal life to get to where you want professionally,” Gan says. “And I think men are sometimes more willing and able to do that. There is perhaps less emotion in it for them in the sense that, if something needs to get done, it can get prioritized and given its full attention because there is usually support at home to pick up whatever needs to be done on the family front. For women, and certainly for me, we’re constantly having to juggle, as that option isn’t always there and so you’re faced then with the very difficult choice of prioritizing.”
In some cases, women will turn down career advancement opportunities because of the demands of their home life. “When you start having a family, it’s harder to relocate, and you have to say no to a lot of interesting career opportunities that would have taken you even higher,” Scholnick says.
The key to their success has been their support networks, both at home and in the industry. Gan’s husband, for example, “was willing to take a few years out from his career and have the entire family relocate for three years in order for [her] to reach the next rung in [her] career.” Industry role models are also critical. “Seeing the amazing speakers at conferences through the International Aviation Womens Association (IAWA) has been critical,” Scholnick says. “And also having sponsors and mentors within our companies or outside of the companies has been important.”
Group of women at ISTAT Americas Women’s Networking Reception.
“Having a support network like IAWA or with people you meet at the ISTAT Women’s Networking Receptions is significant,” Prettyman says. “I have gone to a number of the IAWA conferences, and it’s energizing. You come away from the conference pumped up because you’re connecting with people who share a lot of the same challenges, and you feel like you’re not alone in some of the struggles you’re facing. That’s a great value of having a support network because it provides ideas and validation that you’re not facing unique problems.”
Ultimately, the three state that it’s their own determination and resilience to want to have a career that help them overcome many of the roadblocks they encounter.
Managing the complications that arise when you have a career in aviation can be difficult enough, but it’s often challenging for women to even penetrate the industry, especially leadership positions.
“With it being a technical industry and male-dominated as a result, it can appear to be somewhat self-fulfilling,” Gan says. “You have men at the top and, as with any recruitment or employment process, there is then a tendency for them to hire people who they best connect with. Oftentimes, that means they’ll hire versions of themselves, as this is who they feel most comfortable working with. As a result, intentionally or otherwise, it becomes a lot more difficult for women to both enter and then progress within the industry.”
Scholnick suggests that it comes down to unconscious bias. “It’s a reflection of the rest of society. It’s not better or worse than other industries,” she says. “When I say I work in aviation, people still ask me if I’m a cabin attendant.”
Mylène Scholnick (second from left) at ISTAT Americas Women’s Networking Reception.
Of course, it’s not just women who are sidelined by this unconscious bias. “There are very few African Americans in our industry. It’s generally a lack of diversity in the whole scale, not just women,” Scholnick says.
However, in the past five years, Gan says she has seen great improvement. “The women networking events that Mary Prettyman and Doug Runte set up with ISTAT have been a fantastic opportunity for people to realize there are other women out there in the industry they can create relationships with.”
Importance of Diversity
The awareness of the benefits of a diverse workforce is greater now than it ever has been. And it’s not just about fairness — although that’s important, too. Research shows that diversity leads to better products and solutions.
“There has been research done on measuring the impact of companies with diversity — not just in aviation, but overall — and all these studies show the more diverse the board and company are, the more impact there is on profitability,” Scholnick says.
It makes sense that the more ideas and variety of ideas that are discussed, the greater the potential for a better outcome. “If everyone of a similar ilk is coming together to discuss a specific problem, then the issues you bring up will be very similar,” Gan says. “But if you have women or minorities represented, they should offer a different perspective and so the issues that come up and the potential solutions will be much different.”
ISTAT’s Women’s Networking Receptions are an important step in addressing the lack of equal representation in the industry, but there is more that can be done. Gan, Prettyman and Scholnick promote the implementation of diversity programs at the company level.
“Qantas has embedded diversity as a process at all levels and in all divisions of the firm,” Scholnick says. “Corporations in our industry have to be mindful that diversity has to be a process and ingrained at all levels in training, recruiting, developing and promoting.”
Mary Prettyman addressing women at the reception.
These diversity programs, Prettyman says, need to address the specific issues that women and minorities face — not just exist to create regulations that companies and employees feel forced to follow.
“When I think about diversity programs, it’s about understanding behaviors and valuing collaboration as much as competition and aggression,” Prettyman says. “Maledominated culture can foster a more competitive atmosphere that may be less attractive to women. If they are more collaborative and more team-oriented, women may want to shy away from that.
Successful diversity programs need to address how to create a work environment that brings the best out of different employees. This involves looking at how teams are formed, the team dynamics and, for example, how behavior in meetings allows all the ideas to come out and be discussed, not just those from the most outspoken or aggressive employees.”
Part of addressing roadblocks is understanding the unique reasons women might not be reaching their full potential. “I think the reason why we have so few women at the top is that our pipeline is pretty weak,” Scholnick says. “Corporations have to be mindful of why women are dropping out and what they have to do to retain middle management. It’s mid-career where women face having young families, and companies have to accommodate that for a few years for them to come back at full speed. That’s a critical time to retain that person.
Women drop out at that point because it’s hard to handle both. If companies are not accommodating, and if we don’t retain them, there’s nobody there to promote later on.” Being flexible in a way that makes sense for women during these moments is key. Prettyman says that employees need to be developed on their individual track, and just because someone is looking for something different in their career at that moment doesn’t mean they shouldn’t continue to have opportunities. “We have to acknowledge that for different people at different points in their careers, they may have different needs, demands and life situations,” Prettyman says.
“There may be a time when a woman does not want to be on the fast track. She might have a period where family demands are very high. The big picture here has to make room for that. Part of what companies have to realize is that just because for five years while a woman is more involved with her child rearing or can’t travel as much, that doesn’t mean she’s sidelined for the rest of her life. Maybe five years later, she thinks ‘OK, I’m past that. I want to get back in at top speed.’
If companies realize this, they can adapt and create systems and ways of working and managing careers with their leaders to allow for these ebbs and flows that benefit the entire organization. I think women need that more than men do.”
A Focused Effort
Gan, Prettyman and Scholnick agree that it’s possible to achieve this, but it takes a concerted and focused effort. “It doesn’t happen by accident,” Prettyman says. “It’s an evolutionary process. Companies need to develop diversity programs and start looking at some of the roadblocks that we face — work-life balance, coaching, mentoring. It takes effort to address these roadblocks and make the working environment a bit more conducive.”
That effort, even if implemented slowly, is fundamental to progress. The landscape today is miles ahead of what it was even 10 years ago, and it will likely advance exponentially as the industry becomes more diverse. “The irony is that sometimes it takes a woman in a significantly higher position of power to make that change,” Scholnick says. “We are making strides in getting there, but we still have a long way to go.”