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Sexism in aerospace: another view

Not only as a male engineer working in aerospace, but also as an instructor of fourth-year aerospace engineering students, I would have to agree with the majority in the poll that there just isn’t the same level of interest in aviation amongst women.

However, I would disagree with the blog post author that the reason why there aren’t more women in the industry is sexism (not the main reason anyways; however it would be quite narrow-minded of me to say that sexism doesn’t exist).

For many of my generation, we had many more women in our engineering classes in the late 1990s and early 2000s (there were programs in place at the time that highly encouraged females to enter STEM programs, including more scholarships and outreach programs). However, once the target of 20% female students in engineering was met, the programs and scholarships seemed to disappear and as a grad student doing teaching, and later as a professional in an instructor role, I have noticed a drop in the numbers.

By all means, if there were more women engineers they would be welcomed in the workplace (at least in mine). Striving for a more balanced team, I have often sought out female students for co-op positions, but only found one among the 10 or so applications, and they are usually quickly snapped up before an interview can even take place.

For these reasons, I believe in, and agree with, the latter part of the blog post that addresses the real root cause: young girls may not be given the same opportunities to explore science, technology and engineering as young boys. It is in elementary school where we need to start exposing students to the really fun and exciting aspects of working in and around technology. When students see that science and engineering can be really cool, they will be much more willing to put in the effort in courses like maths and physics. Yes, maths can be boring at times (at least to some), but with a more tangible realization of where it can lead, I believe students, and especially female students, will be willing to take that route.

The reality is that men and women are different. This is obviously a huge generalization, but also a basic fact. Equal, yes; but we are wired differently. Why do those little girls have Barbie dolls? For the vast majority I would expect that the reason is because they asked for them. The challenge is then on their parents to make sure they offer a variety of toys, activities, crafts, etc that can lead to a much broader range of interests. These interests need to be cultivated early so the child can make their own, informed decisions on which direction to take in their education and career.

There is no use in only having programs in late high school and scholarships to entice females into engineering if the goal is to produce women engineers ready to work in a particular industry. Many of the women that I went to school with, including several close friends, graduated with degrees in aerospace, but now do nothing related to aviation or space. The reason? I think for many it was because they did not have that same level of interest, that passion let’s say, that they did when they entered the program. The same can be said for several male friends from school as well.

I recently had a conversation, on an airplane in fact, with an older gentleman who, it turns out, sits on several boards of directors. He was asking about my experience with women in the workplace (recognizing me as an engineer by my pinky ring). I told him that in my time in the aerospace industry I have worked with very few, but that we were always striving for more because of the different views and perspectives the opposite sex can bring to the table.

Why should only one sex design and influence a product that is used by the whole population? He agreed, and mentioned his efforts to include more women on the boards that he sat on, for the same reasons. I found this both encouraging and inspiring. Only with the buy-in of those in leadership positions will real change ever be effected. It would be best if those efforts took place now versus when people of my generation finally make it into those high-up leadership positions.

James Day, P. Eng. is an airworthiness engineer at the Flight Research Laboratory at National Research Council Canada, and an instructor at Carleton University's department of mechanical & aerospace engineering


5 September 2017


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