Women Have Growing Presence in Middle East Aviation

Dubai Air Show » 2013
Alia Twal was one of the first female students at Jordan’s Mideast Aviation. She is currently serving as first officer for one of the region’s airlines.
November 17, 2013, 11:45 AM

Aviation in the Middle East isn’t just growing, it’s booming–and women have every opportunity to join the ranks, according to the president of the Emirates chapter of Women in Aviation, International (WAI).

“People from the outside think that women in this part of the world are limited in choices, but that’s wrong,” said Mervat Sultan, one of the first Emirati women to obtain a flight dispatcher’s license. She also holds a PPL and serves as finance manager for RamJet Aviation Support, based in Ras Al Khaimah, UAE. “The choices open to women are the same as for men. We, all of us, are the same.”

Men and women also receive the same encouragement to pursue careers in aviation, Sultan said. “In the UAE, we receive the same support as men, from the government and from our families,” Sultan said. “There is no difference. I’ve never faced any problems here.”

The UAE government, which has publicly praised women’s contributions to society and encouraged the private sector to give them every opportunity to succeed, was especially supportive of Sultan’s dream to launch a WAI chapter. “The government really encouraged us,” she said.

The WAI Vision

The newly launched WAI-Emirates chapter is the first of its kind in the Gulf region. To date, there are no other organizations that support women in aviation, Sultan said. One of the goals of the new chapter is to introduce Middle Eastern women to all aspects of aviation, and to encourage them to look beyond the obvious career paths. As Sultan explained, people often think that the only career choices are those of pilot, flight attendant or ticketing agent, which is wrong, she said.

“All of us, we have the same vision,” Sultan said, speaking of the eight women on the WAI-Emirates board. “We have to introduce women to different fields in aviation. There are plenty of choices.” The WAI-Emirates board consists of women from all sectors of aviation. In addition to Sultan, the board includes Dina Ali Beljaflah, vice president of aerospace at Mubadala Aerospace; Kristina Tervo, a flight instructor and director of KTConsultancy; Heba Hussain, operational readiness, Abu Dhabi Airports Co.; Belinda Suares, business development manager at RamJet Aviation Support; Farah Al Ansari, manager, Airport Security Pass, Dubai Airports; Mariam Ali Al Balooshi, Environment Manager, UAE General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA); and Suaad Al Shamsi, an aircraft engineer with Emirates Airline.

The goal of each of the board members is to share their knowledge and experiences with other women in the industry, Sultan said. And the board expects to see big numbers over the coming months and years. “Every three or four days I receive emails from women who want to be involved with us,” she said.

Opportunities for Women

Although it may come as a surprise to many, Middle Eastern women have been involved in aviation for decades. Loftia El Nadi, the first Egyptian woman to earn a pilot’s license, was also the second woman ever to solo an airplane. She earned her license in 1933.

An ever-increasing number of women are entering the industry. Mideast Aviation Academy in Amman, Jordan, for example, currently has female students from Libya and Nigeria, in addition to Jordan, and its graduates include women from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, Bahrain and Algeria.

One of the founders of the academy, Entisar Al-Ramahi, has been involved with aviation for 13 years and serves as the school’s director of public relations and marketing. She has been instrumental in helping to develop new courses and attracting international students, including many females, to the school.

At Emirates Aviation College, where Sultan earned her JAA-compliant GCAA flight dispatch license, her fellow students included the first female Bahraini air traffic controller and a female pilot who now works for Gulf Air. “There are plenty of ladies in aviation, but aviation itself is still a young industry in the Middle East,” Sultan explained. “It’s not the same as the industry in the U.S. or Europe, and it’s a challenge for both men and women to get involved.”

That being said, the Middle Eastern aerospace industry is making great strides in attracting nationals–including females–to positions within the industry. One of the most successful has been Strata, the Al Ain-based aerostructures facility wholly owned by Mubadala Aerospace. To date, the company employs 165 women, 140 of whom are UAE nationals. Their positions are varied, and include everything from technicians, operators and quality and laboratory specialists, to HR, training and learning/development officers. In addition, Mubadala is working with many of its female employees to establish a mentoring program to get more women into the boardroom. These women have not only gained the respect of their coworkers, but their family and friends as well.

In many Middle East countries, there are still cultural objections to women working in the manufacturing industry and leaving their children at home. But as Sultan explained, many people have positive views of the aviation industry.

“As Arabs, we cannot get involved in any industry unless we keep our femininity,” Sultan said. The aviation industry, unlike other manufacturing industries, is “a nice industry, very conservative.”

A female operator at Strata, for example, said that her son was initially embarrassed each time she wore her work uniform. But now he is proud of his mother.

Another advantage is the growing number of industry-related opportunities in the Middle East, which allows more women to be educated and to find jobs close to home. “We have plenty of schools and colleges that give women and men the chance to get a proper degree without leaving the country,” Sultan said.

The goal of the WAI-Emirates chapter is to introduce women to the wide range of opportunities within the industry, many of which don’t require women to go abroad. “Maybe being a pilot is difficult,” Sultan said. “It is difficult for a woman to find balance because she is away most of the time. But in other fields, there is no need to be outside the country. You can be close to your family and your business.”

Challenges

Despite the encouragement women receive to enter the aviation industry, there are still challenges that are unique to them. Cultural objections to women working are most problematic, especially in the more conservative countries. There were reports, for example, that one company in the aviation industry (not in the UAE) refused to hire women because the building had only one staircase and the male employees did not want to use the same staircase as the women.

Another challenge is the need for some industry employees, such as pilots and flight attendants, to leave the country–to work or for training. This is something many families object to.

Strata recently sent a group of male and female technicians working on the A330 aileron assembly to Nantes, France, for a five-month intensive training course. The company also sent three women to Brindisi in Italy for three months for training on another project.

Fortunately, the families of the women supported the their choice to work for a Mubadala asset and permitted them to go abroad. In fact, the families saw it as a patriotic duty to the country.

Some other challenges are not unique to the aviation industry. “Childcare in the Middle East is a big problem,” said Mariola Ziolkowski, president of WAI–Chapter Germany, which recently initiated the World-Wide Traveling Photo Exhibition of Women in Aviation. Ziolkowski is currently in Iraq, working at Erbil International Airport.

Most governments don’t have childcare programs, and the private companies that do have daycare centers are few and far between–but that is starting to change. Mubadala, for example, is planning to offer daycare to its employees and allow women to go home for up to an hour per day to breastfeed their babies. And within the Al Ain International Airport Master Plan, there are proposals for staff accommodation, childcare and leisure facilities.

The government in the UAE is keen to provide more mother-friendly workplaces, and has called on private companies to provide more childcare facilities. Maternity leave remains a problem, though. In the UAE, women are allowed 45 days maternity leave after the birth of a child. Women’s groups, including the Dubai Women’s Establishment (DWE), are calling for a change, to bring the UAE up to international standards.

Business Skills

Women in the Middle East, especially those in the more conservative countries, also need personal coaching, Ziolkowski said, to help them communicate effectively with their male peers. “The women are very well educated, and the governments are beginning to see that it is not a good long term plan to keep them out of the workforce,” she said. “But they need additional coaching to be able to communicate at the same level as the men. It’s not easy for many women; they’re not strong enough.”

In spite of these challenges, one well-placed source in UAE industry said she is excited about the future. “Small steps in this age will have a large impact on future generations,” she said. “You’re laying robust foundations now by providing opportunities for women, and whether or not they continue in employment, they will be raising their daughters to look at careers in broader fields. Over the next two generations or so, the diversity of women’s occupations will increase.” o

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