Women in Aviation 2012 Conference Report

 - April 3, 2012, 3:10 AM
Recovering jobs market boosts attendance at networking event

This year aviation companies, even airlines, are resuming hiring, and that alone may explain the new attendance record set by the annual Women in Aviation International Conference, held in Dallas from March 8 to 10. It might be difficult to believe that in 2012 women still need to band together to help each other find jobs in the aviation and aerospace industries. After all, even notoriously conservative Emirates Airlines turned up at the conference to join XOJet, Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air, among others, with booths in the exhibit hall looking for both pilots and flight attendants, a notable first for both Emirates and Women in Aviation International (WAI).

The statistics, however, show that even with Middle Eastern, Asian and Indian airlines jumping on the “yes, we hire women pilots and mechanics” bandwagon, there is much room for change. Right now women make up less than 4 percent of the total jet-qualified pilots in the world (FAA statistics for ATP-rated women pilots) and there are fewer than 500 women flying as captains with major airlines worldwide. Female mechanics are even more rare, making up just 2 percent of the total FAA-certified mechanics worldwide.

With the FAA’s forecast for the next 20 years showing that the turbine fleet is expected to grow 2.9 percent per year, and the turbine jet fleet expected to grow 4 percent per year, it is imperative that the population of pilots, mechanics and other support personnel grow, as well.

The mission of WAI, the non-profit organization that runs the International Women in Aviation conference, is to recruit, mentor and network a new and more diverse generation of aviation and aerospace workers to fill those positions as they come online. The organization does that through a generous scholarship program, which awarded 85 scholarships totally nearly $560,000 this year during the closing banquet at its conference, as well as through a broad and vibrant educational program (there were more than 50 education seminars and workshops held during its conference, as well), and local outreach through its more than 80 chapters worldwide.

More than 3,300 WAI members from 12 countries in addition to the U.S. contributed to the energy that made the conference special. Nigeria, Canada and the UK, respectively, accounted for the largest numbers of international attendees. WAI’s international chapters are coalescing rapidly, according to chapters coordinator Betty Huck. There are now chapters in China, Iraq, Canada, Nigeria, Switzerland, England and Germany.

Outreach Programs

“Recruiting for an aviation career has to start early, by instilling a passion for aviation,” said Dr. Peggy Chabrian, co-founder of the organization and its current president. “That is why we operate Aerospace Education Teacher workshops in conjunction with the FAA at every international conference we put on. This year we decided to take that one step further, in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the Girl Scouts, and put on a ‘Bring your daughter to the conference’ day, which was underwritten by a generous grant from the UPS Foundation.” More than 160 girls, some the daughters and nieces of conference participants, but many from local D/FW-area Girl Scout troops, participated in age-appropriate activities introducing them to aviation, from building gliders to flying pc flight simulators. All of the children were invited into the exhibit hall to meet HR personnel and discover more about the aviation and aerospace careers that could one day be their livelihood.

“Daughter Day” was not the only outreach Women in Aviation International performed during the conference. There were also on-site aerospace educator workshops where local teachers could obtain continuing education credits; an FAA safety seminar where pilots and mechanics, both WAI members and the local community alike, could receive Wings credit; and an aviation maintenance professional IA Renewal seminar.

At the Saturday morning general session of the conference there was also a salute to aviation education–with recognition and tribute to EAA, the Girl Scouts, Aviation Explorers and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which has enacted a new women’s initiative project. Speakers that morning included Colleen Walker, CEO of Girl Scouts southeastern Texas region; Dr. Diane Thorton, CEO of Learning for Life; Dr. John Johnson, president of Embry-Riddle University; Rod Hightower, president of EAA; and Sherry Carbary, vice president of Boeing Flight Services.

Interestingly, though the focus of WAI is decidedly girls and women, the organization, unlike other women’s groups, accepts men as full members and includes boys in its outreach, scholarship and educational efforts as well (yes, there were even boys at the “Bring your daughter to the conference” event). Ten percent of the organization’s 8,100-strong membership is male.

“We do not discriminate against gender because we don’t like to be discriminated against,” said Anna Mracek Dietrich, COO of Terrafugia and a member of the WAI board of directors.

The percentage of men roaming the halls during the three-day conference is considerably higher than even the membership numbers. “In our entourage, half of us are male, and the guys make up two-thirds of our student attendance [at the WAI conference],” said Robert Barnhart of St. Louis, who was at the conference with the WAI Chapter from Parks College of St. Louis University. The University of Nebraska-Omaha actually brought more men than women to the conference, according to student Zach Ossino. “We know most men’s motives for the conference…employment,” laughed Barnhart, when asked.

Students, it turns out, are some of the best recruiters for both WAI and their own universities and, by proxy, aviation and aerospace as a whole. Katelynn McClure of Embry-Riddle Prescott (ERAU), a global security and intelligence major, brought 34 students as part of the school’s student-led Women’s Ambassador Program to prospect for more female students at conference. ERAU wants to increase its female student population from 17 percent to 25 percent by 2017.

The WAI conference has also become the place to meet for other, smaller, sister organizations with similar yet more focused goals. The University Aviation Association was present and unifying students, as were the Association for Women in Aviation Maintenance (AWAM), Women Military Aviators, the International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISA +21) and, of course, The Ninety-Nines. Even large entities such as Boeing and the U.S. military now take advantage of the opportunity to encourage their female employees by bringing them in numbers (more than 300 in the case of Boeing) and setting aside time for them to network with each other, away from the crowds of the exhibit hall and education sessions.

“We are so much more than a conference for women pilots,” said Chabrian, when asked about the goals of the conference. “We encourage people’s passion in aviation overall, whether their interest is flying or controlling, or fixing or managing or designing. That’s what is so interesting about our organization, and I’m confident that is one of the reasons we continue to grow.”

The 24th Annual International Women in Aviation Conference will be held at the Opryland Hotel, Nashville, Tenn., from March 14 to 16, 2013. For more information, visit www.wai.org.