I was recently asked to participate in a discussion that began here, about women in technology. I shared the story of my experiences when first entering the aviation world and was asked if it could be used to further the discussion on a site called Nerds in Babeland. I agreed, and I am also re-posting the updated version here on my own blog:
For those who don’t know me, I have worked in aviation and aerospace for the past decade. In October, I volunteered for a layoff from my job as a technician on the Space Shuttle Program, as it is coming to an end soon. I am very much a space advocate, and have been using Twitter to share my enthusiasm for space for over two years. I am also the founder of the Space Tweep Society, a growing group of space enthusiasts on Twitter. Due to that role, I am often asked to participate in interviews or space outreach activities, many with the goal of encouraging girls to pursue careers in science or technology. This has me feeling quite conflicted because I’d love to have more women in aviation and aerospace, but in my experience breaking into these fields was really rough. I almost feel guilty for encouraging them, knowing what kind of obstacles they may face.
Of course I say “obstacles they may face” because there is a chance they won’t have any issues. A certain author who was once an engineer for a contractor on NASA’s Apollo program said in a recent interview, “All of the guys were great. No problems. I was just ‘one of the team.’ I have worked for many companies for 25+ years in technical jobs. I was the only woman in many. I was treated with respect and courtesy… There is no conflict in any job if you don’t act like a jackass.” She also tweeted, “Get rid of [the] idea that guys [are] mean to gals in Space Exp[loration]. Guys [are] great friends. I worked with men in all jobs for years. Some gals [are] idiots.” While I’m very happy to hear that she had only positive experiences, for many of us this was not the case- and I don’t think it was because we are “idiots” or “act like jackasses.” My own entry into the career field of aviation was definitely rocky, and I blogged about it a few years ago. The following is an updated version of that post:
Tired of being a pioneer
Why is it that in this extremely liberated day and age that there are still so few women in the field of aviation maintenance? According to the Federal Aviation Administration’s data, only about two percent of all licensed airframe and powerplant mechanics are women, and it seems that even fewer actually work as mechanics. Perhaps many have been lured away by other careers or family obligations, but I believe most are pushed away from aviation due to the challenges they face while trying to break into this solidly male-dominated career.
Since I have been in working in the field of aviation/aerospace maintenance I have always wished that one day, when I start a new job, that they wouldn’t have to hold a meeting with all of my new co-workers before I got there telling them that a female was going to be working with them and that they had to start watching what they said and did and clean up their act. It is no fun being the pioneer, paving the way for other women to come along. In one of the places that I worked there was not even a women’s bathroom in the hangar, but there was a large men’s bathroom and locker room. That building was built as recently as 1983; apparently even at that late date the company had no reason to anticipate they would ever employ a woman mechanic. Amazing.
My first real taste of aviation was just before my nineteenth birthday. I was in college at Florida State University and I saw an advertisement for introductory flights with the FSU Aviation Club. I took my intro flight on a breezy Halloween day, 1993. My flight was in a Cessna 150, a two-seater owned by the aviation club. I was instantly hooked. I started taking flying lessons as often as I could afford. My grandmother was helping to support my interest and I was volunteering my time to keep the club’s aircraft clean and the interior in good repair in exchange for flight hours. I really liked just being around planes. I tried to get a part time job washing airplanes at the small maintenance shop where the club’s airplane went for service, but the owner told me “No, because if I hire you, none of the mechanics will get any work done.” He hired a high school boy with no experience around aircraft at all instead.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I decided that I was more interested in how aircraft worked than I was in flying them. At the time I thought I would like to pursue a career in warbird restoration, particularly in re-creating the elaborate nose art that made each plane so unique. I decided to enroll in school to obtain my FAA Airframe and Powerplant Mechanic’s license. There was a small school for this in Tallahassee, where I was living that had been in existence since the 1940s and had a wealth of equipment to work with, although some of it was truly ancient. I loved it. I was learning about combustion engines, gear ratios, aerodynamics, etc. I faced a little more difficulty than many of the other students in that I had no mechanical background. Many of the students knew a lot about cars, and understood the similarities, which made things easier for them. I had never really worked with anything mechanical before; my dad could hardly be bothered to take his car in to have the oil changed, so needless to say I didn’t have anyone showing me things about cars or anything mechanical. Fortunately my instructors were very knowledgeable and very good at imparting their wisdom to me and I didn’t have too much trouble understanding the things I had to learn. When my classes were all completed, I began the rigorous testing process to earn my Airframe and Powerplant mechanic’s license.
My first job in aviation was with the Cessna Aircraft Company in Wichita, Kansas, where I was employed as a flight line mechanic at the factory where they built their business jets. I set out for Wichita on January 1st, 2000, the day that all the computers in the world were supposed to stop working due to Y2K. Obviously that didn’t happen and I arrived in Wichita the next day.
Orientation at Cessna was an all day affair where we heard all of the usual topics such as attendance policy, rules, and benefits and we filled out all the necessary paperwork and forms. Then the Union people came in and gave their extensive sales pitch, making sure to let us know how easily we could be fired during our probation period. After that, I was shown to the area I would be working in and introduced to my shop foreman, who was pretty young and not at all scary. I was quite relieved. He took me on a quick tour of the factory and to meet a few of my new co-workers. Then my orientation was over and I was told to report back on Monday for second shift.
My first day on the job, I was assigned to work with a mechanic named Justin, a long haired, loud-mouthed young guy in the shop. He was very nice, and told me that both of his parents had been aircraft mechanics and many times he had seen his mother come home from work crying, due to various struggles on the job. Justin was born to work on airplanes; he could contort his body to access areas of them that were almost impossible to get to. He claimed that a bicycle accident at age ten had left his rib cage slightly flattened, which allowed him to squirm into very small compartments. It was a good thing that I befriended Justin early on, because he stuck up for me later when things went awry. It was not long coming.
On my third day on the job, I was told that a certain mechanic in my shop, Jim, had said some very nasty things about me in front of a group of about eight of my co-workers. No one would tell me exactly what he said because it was too horrible, I guess. The funny thing was, I had never met Jim, never spoken to him, and I didn’t even know which one he was- someone had to point him out to me. Needless to say, my feelings were hurt a lot to know that there was so much hostility directed toward me when I had done nothing to elicit such a response. I did not dare say anything to management about the incident though, because first of all, I am not a crybaby and I like to handle things on my own, and second, because the Union people had drilled into us at orientation that we had better not do anything to attract any attention to ourselves or we would be out on our asses; no one likes a troublemaker.
It seems that this was not the first incidence of Jim bullying someone. He regularly spoke disparagingly of women, youth, and foreigners; he was truly threatened by those different from himself, and spoke loudly about their inferiority to anyone who would listen. Finally one of my co-workers had enough of Jim’s crap and reported the incident where he slandered me. After the episode was reported, it swiftly escalated through the HR department, and by the end of the shift the company lawyers were interviewing me. I didn’t have much to tell them considering that I had never met Jim. He was sent home indefinitely. Over the next few days, the company lawyers took statements from my co-workers on the current issue and a host of past issues they had with Jim that had been going on for years. To complicate things even more, he had joined the Union the day the trouble with me had started, and immediately he filed a grievance against me. The Union was forced to investigate the grievance and defend him as a member of the Union and they came to interview me about it. Considering that I had never spoken to the man, the investigation was dropped fairly quickly.
After all of the chaos, I was told that I would not have to work around Jim, if they ever let him come back to work at all. It turned out, that this was not the case. A few weeks after the fact, he returned to work, and during the shift tie-in meeting he glared at me from across the break area with a snarl on his face. I tried my best to ignore him, but I didn’t feel at all comfortable in the situation. One of my co-workers noticed that Jim was trying to intimidate me, and decided he’d had enough of the guy’s antics. He reported it and the next thing I knew, the company lawyer was back. Jim was sent home again and this time he didn’t come back, at least not to my department. Things calmed down a great deal after that, although I did have one of my tires slashed in the parking lot at work and one of my co-workers who had testified against Jim had his car’s side window smashed in the same parking lot.
Months later we heard what had finally happened to Jim. He had been allowed to return to work, only in a different department and was placed on probation. He continued to cause problems in his new area, and finally was terminated and escorted out of the building. He then proceeded to peel out of the parking lot, lost control of his vehicle and hit a couple of parked cars. The police were summoned and escorted him off the property. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy!
I don’t know what it is that could possibly cause a person to be so prejudiced against someone they don’t even know that they would sacrifice their career over it. Jim couldn’t stand the idea of a woman doing the same job as he did and it eventually ruined him. I can’t imagine how someone could treat a woman he’d never met in such a manner, especially since he had a wife and daughters at home- how would he feel if they were put in a similar situation? I hope his wife gave him hell when she found out what he got in trouble for. Any decent woman would.
I would like to say that after this one hurdle that the rest of my career in aviation went smoothly and that issues like this didn’t follow me when I transitioned to aerospace, but I cannot. I faced many more challenges after this one, though I also have met many great people and had a lot of fun along the way. It is certainly not a career choice for women who are faint of heart!