Empowering women in the aviation and aerospace industry

Aircraft mechanic checking helicopter engine, back view. Female worker in blue uniform in airplane hangar, mid shot

Research has led to the introduction of a unique, industry-wide mentoring scheme which supports women to build their careers in aviation and aerospace.

Women in professional roles are under-represented in the aviation and aerospace industry, with few holding the most senior positions.

Under 6% of the UK’s 16,000 pilots and fewer than 10% of the sector’s engineers are female. Since aviation and aerospace industries suffer chronic skills shortages, steps to improve the recruitment and retention of women are urgently needed.

Professor Susan Durbin, working with other researchers and industry partners, undertook research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the University of the West of England, and industry partners into the existing provision of mentoring.

They identified a demand for women-only, industry-wide mentoring that enabled women to build connections both outside and within their organisations, and receive technical advice, support on career progression and help with issues such as:

  • maternity leave and return to work
  • work-life balance
  • childcare

Created in 2019, the ‘alta mentoring scheme’ helps women to remain, and progress their careers, in the aviation and aerospace industry, providing a practical way to enhance gender equality for individuals, organisations and the whole sector. It connects women across a highly male-dominated industry and empowers them to support each other in reaching their full potential and goals.

Video credit: ESRC
On-screen captions and an autogenerated transcript are available on YouTube.

About the project

Based on more than 20 years’ research experience of women’s non-traditional employment in male-dominated industries, Professor Susan Durbin, with her co-investigator, Dr Ana Lopes and research assistant Stella Warren undertook research into:

  • the availability of mentoring
  • what women wanted from mentoring
  • the design of a potential scheme

Between 2015 and 2016, the team spoke with 250 professional women, employers and HR directors across the industry through a survey, qualitative interviews and focus groups. At that time, none of alta’s partners provided mentoring support specifically for professional women. Alta’s partners were:

  • Airbus
  • the Royal Air Force (RAF)
  • Little Blue Private Jets
  • the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS)
  • Raytheon
  • other industry employers

Professor Durbin explains:

We found out what women themselves wanted from mentoring rather than simply focusing upon a business need. Some companies had existing schemes but they were generally aimed at senior or graduate levels, with nothing in between.

Based on this research, the alta mentoring platform team, a unique collaboration between the aviation and aerospace industry and researchers, developed its alta mentoring initiative to meet women’s and employers’ expressed needs for mentoring support.

Impacts of the project

Professor Durbin’s research highlighting a lack of support for women professionals in the UK aviation and aerospace industry prompted the launch of the only industry-wide, free, women-to-women mentoring scheme of its kind in this sector, anywhere in the world.

The alta mentoring platform currently has 454 women as mentors or mentees, including over 100 new members since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Creating a community of professional women

Founded by RAeS, the University of the West of England, Airbus UK, the Royal Airforce and Little Blue Private Jets, alta’s provision of career and social support has created a community of professional women. They have joined the scheme as individuals from over 150 organisations including:

  • the Civil Aviation Authority
  • Rolls-Royce
  • Ministry of Defence
  • Gatwick Airport
  • Easy Jet
  • Cathay Pacific
  • Virgin

As both an online and face-to-face programme, alta cuts across organisation boundaries. It enables women working anywhere in the world, in both small and medium-sized enterprises  and large companies, to access female mentoring support that would otherwise not have been available to them.

Women have access to insights tailored to their needs including technical support and advice and support on career progression.

Alta mentee and RAF Corporal, Charlotte Medcraft says:

The alta mentoring platform has offered me the opportunity to connect with a mentor outside of my organisation with the skills and experience I am looking for at this stage in my career.

An innovative platform for equality and diversity

A key factor in alta’s design is its unique electronic matching system that enables women to connect with the most suitable mentor for their specific needs.

The resulting scheme complements rather than replaces existing company schemes. It adds another element to the mix of recruitment and retention initiatives required to support culture change, and enhance gender equality and diversity in the industry.

The RAeS brought alta in-house as a pilot scheme in 2016, embedding it within its careers service and web page publications and making mentoring support available to its 1,700 female members (and non-members) for the first time.

High-profile employers including Collins Aerospace, Boeing UK and GKN Aerospace help fund alta, using it as a tool to break down barriers and create a more balanced workplace.

Support for all career stages

The benefits of alta are felt across different career stages, with mentees developing the skills to become mentors themselves while connecting with experienced women in key roles within the industry. In a 2021 survey, 90% of members said they would recommend alta to their female friends and colleagues.

Alta has gained high-level support from the most experienced women in the sector. The majority of mentors are executives or board members, senior managers, squadron leaders and middle managers, many of whom recognise mentoring as a valuable means to:

  • develop management skills
  • expand their experience
  • ‘give something back’

Find out more

The alta mentoring platform team is a finalist in the ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize 2022.

The team consists of:

  • Professor Susan Durbin
  • Stella Warren
  • Dr Ana Lopes
  • Judith Milne
  • Alessandra Badino
  • Sarah Minett
  • Nick Davies
  • Akelia Moxam-Black
  • Wing Commander Victoria Fulton

Find out more about the alta mentoring platform.

Find out about Professor Yvonne Jewkes on the University of West of England blog.

Top image:  Credit: vm, E+ via Getty Images

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