According to data released from the FAA, there are 5,734 certificated women mechanics and 1,800 repairmen compared to a total of 313,032 certificated mechanics. With the challenges of an already tough industry and being in the minority how do women succeed in aviation? AMT takes a look at the resources available and talks to a few women who have been there, done that.
There are several associations that target women in the field of aviation. One is Women in Aviation Intl. (WAI), based in Florida, that offers an annual conference (held in Dallas this month) for networking and technical training, mentoring programs, and scholarships that in 2003 totaled more than $450,000. Formed in 1995, WAI has more than 5,500 members covering all aspects of aviation.
Professional Aviation Maintenance Association (PAMA), based in Washington, D.C., also offers networking and training opportunities on a local chapter level and at its annual symposium held this month in Las Vegas. PAMA offers the Professional Aviation Maintenance Olympics (PAMO) to give aviation maintenance professionals the opportunity to demonstrate their skills. The competition takes place at its annual symposium. Teams compete in a variety of events and are scored based on time and accuracy.
Another association is the Association for Women in Aviation Maintenance (AWAM) which is based in Florida, and was formed for the purpose of championing women's professional growth and enrichment in the aviation maintenance field.
Robin Lamar, outgoing president of AWAM, was involved with aviation associations long before she was an A&P. "Learning what other folks are doing can be a real inspiration to ones personal life.
"I had been an A&P for many years before someone told me about PAMA. It was good to know that professionals had an association to work within."
And as to the benefits of belonging to an association, particularly AWAM, Lamar says, "Most of us are the only ones of our kind that we see at work, we feel extremely isolated, no matter how great the guys are at work. It's tremendous to be able to meet and talk with other women who talk tech. To share information about different job possibilities, evaluate companies, and compare technical tips is just the tip of the AWAM support. We have created some great scholarships that are not just for students, but are for professionals that want to advance their careers.
"AWAM creates an area of opportunity that would not exist without the organization.
"When I was furloughed (United Airlines line mechanic at Los Angeles International Airport)," Lamar says, "my involvement with AWAM kept me sane. I knew that I wasn't alone during this difficult down turn of our industry. We needed to help each other. As AWAM president, I tried to make sure there were as many ways as possible to support our members and I was supporting myself as well."
Many AWAM programs have grown directly out of the realization of members' needs. Due to a member saying she couldn't apply for scholarship training because of travel and hotel accommodations, AWAM created what it calls a complete scholarship packet that includes hotel and where possible transportation costs. "It was when I faced relocation," Lamar says, "that AWAM pushed to have quick e-mail connection so that members could network with people in different cities and get help in that tough transition period."
As with any career, having a mentor in the industry to offer advice along the way is a benefit. It could be a teacher, co-worker, or an owner of an airplane.
"When I started," Lamar says, "I had never seen a woman doing this work and I didn't really work with any other women mechanics. Several men have been very important mentors for me, and 18 years later they are still important in my development. I learned that I could be accepted and how the system worked with the help of men who dared to stand up for my rights. They helped me realize that it's by doing the job, and doing it well that you get accepted."
Nicole Cagnolatti is an example of what you can do with the right attitude and talent. She received training from Orange Coast College (OCC) in Costa Mesa, California. She took the Airframe & Powerplant course plus got a certificate in its avionics course, over a two-year period. Cagnolatti received her powerplant and airframe certificates last year. "It took me longer to get my actual licenses because I went away to take my scholarship training."
And she's taken advantage of what is available in terms of scholarships. So far she's received 14 aircraft maintenance (plus one flight training) related scholarships in the last 2.5 years.
Cagnolatti's scholarships from Women in Aviation and AWAM include factory training for the Lear 31a at Bombardier in Texas; Citation V training at CAE SimuFlite in Texas; Pratt & Whitney training on the PW530A/535A Turbofan engine in Montreal, Canada; and Abaris for composite training in Reno, Nevada. And, she also won an AWAM scholarship from Aviation Learning for maintenance-related training courses on CD-ROM that helped her prepare for the actual A&P test.
Besides the scholarships, Cagnolatti's participated in two internships, one while in school and one right after which provided practical experience in general aviation. Other experiences include being a member of the AWAM team at the Professional Aviation Maintenance Olympics for the past two years and being a private pilot with a multi engine rating with more than 370 hours. She's currently a technical instructor at Abaris.
And looking at the experiences of someone who has been an A&P since 1987, Robin Lamar says, "Managers, co-workers, and the nontraditional employee need to be able to evaluate the stresses created by subtle differences in expectations. Gender can create unnecessary tension in the workplace. It can also add an important reminder that being different isn't the issue - it's working together with our different strengths, weaknesses, and skill levels that keep the planes flying. A hangar is definitely its own subculture. Women add to the hangar culture, they don't take away from it."
Challenges? The industry is full of them and especially for women entering a field dominated by men.
Here are some of Cagnolatti experiences: "I found that most my challenges happened in the field. When you're in school for the first few weeks you are going to have trouble with the guys in your class because you are the "black sheep" of the bunch. Once you get to know them and you see them everyday, things change. You have your group you hang out with and things are good.
"However, once I left school I found the situation of getting along a bit different. I dealt with a lot of 'old school guys' who thought I should be home in the kitchen baking cookies getting cooking grease on me not oil and grease from under a dirty aircraft. I found that I had to play dumb for awhile and then when I learned a few things I didn't give them any slack and proved my worth on the floor. There will be a day when they need your help, it's inevitable, and once they learn about you they are OK with you.
"Growing up," Cagnolatti says, "I had many challenges because I was young, a minority, and a female plus I had a lot of drive and it made people jealous. They gave me a lot of trouble back then but I made it through their tests and came out much stronger on the other side."
And other challenges, according to Lamar: "The financial upheaval of the major airlines in the last 15 years has been an emotional and financial challenge. It's rough to live with uncertainty for months and months at a time. The rumor mill can wear you down.
"A second challenge came from learning what my limits were, both on an interpersonal level and physically. It took me time to give myself permission to ask for help, in moving huge stands or loosening corroded bolts. What I realized is that in this business every one asks for help, guys much bigger than me would ask for assistance with moving these stands; it was the wise thing to do. As women we can make ourselves 'outsiders' in lots of different ways. When we become aware that it is not the 'guys' but ourselves who are creating the distances at work, it makes a tremendous difference. Some very patient men taught me that. We are all tested in this industry. Each of us must be tested, because it's a dangerous job and lives depend upon our knowing the weaknesses and strengths of the other people we work with. It's important not to take it personally." AMT