We speak to Allison McKay, the chief executive of Women in Aviation International (WIA): the world’s largest special interest group for women interested in aviation and aerospace. 

What are some of the most effective ways to inspire young women to pursue a technical or engineering career path?

Mentors and role models are very important. Girls need to see themselves in those careers. Companies who go into the community and inspire that next generation of young women, I think that’s really where the most bang for your buck is. Once in the workforce, men also have to champion the women to help them get those new opportunities. Throughout my career, I had both women and male mentors that were really instrumental in providing the opportunities, engaging me in meetings – it’s really up to the culture of the organisation, and it has to come from the top down.

McKay, Allison headshot JR 2

Source: Women in Aviation International

Allison McKay, chief executive of Women in Aviation International (WAI)

Are quotas an appropriate response?

There is a lot of discussion about, if you don’t hold industry accountable, then you’re really not going to see change. But I think we will be better served if we can convince our industry to self-report and then hold ourselves accountable.

Doesn’t that leave the door open to “creative” reporting?

Honestly, I think the numbers are so poor, that it would probably be very hard to massage them enough to make yourself look really good.

Why do women continue to be passed over when it comes to leadership roles?

Most executives say they recognise that there’s a systemic problem, because these stats are so low across the board in all different areas of aviation and aerospace. But it’s interesting, they don’t seem to have a problem internally. So executives would admit that yes, it’s a problem, but it’s not our problem.

Do you see meaningful progress?

I am heartened by the fact that in collegiate programmes the demographics are a lot better than they are in industry right now. Some of these programmes are up to 25-30% women. So, I think if you can continue to push more diversity into the pipeline, then you’re going to get it out on the other side too. I hope I’ll see 30-40% representation in my lifetime. But you know, I just want to keep seeing positive movement. Let’s just try to keep getting better every year.

Do women need to be “more like men” to move up on the career ladder?

It would be helpful if corporate culture shifted to be more inclusive, rather than forcing individuals to change who they are. Some women talk about cutting their hair and not wearing certain colours. One maintenance technician I know says, ‘We don’t do our nails, then you get to this point in your career, and you’re just like, what am I doing? I can be a maintenance technician and I can have a manicure, they’re not mutually exclusive.’