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Interview of Valerie Guenon, SAFRAN's VP Technology Strategy

Mrs. Valerie Guenon shares her views on women under-representation in the Aeronautics industry and academia.

Q1: It is difficult to believe that in the 21st century, with so much emphasis on gender equality in the workplace, women are still appreciably under-represented in the aviation and aerospace sectors. Why do you think there is such a gender gap? What kinds of challenges or barriers exist?

Many times, I wondered why girls, who perform better than boys in school, including in math and physics, remain a minority in science and technology, specifically in aviation and aerospace. And yet, I do not know a single woman working in our field who regrets her choice. So, why is our sector not attracting more women?

On another hand, in several European countries, women have outnumbered men in medical studies, which are by far the most difficult, demanding, and the longest studies. Doctors and nurses face physical and psychological pressure and difficult working hours and conditions. And yet we rarely hear that being a hospital doctor or a nurse "it is not feminine" or "is impossible for a mother". Being an engineer is far easier in that respect. But, in the unconscious mind of many men, women and children, "engineering is not for girls".

Deeply ingrained stereotypes, unspoken and embedded in the collective mind, take time to change. For centuries, women have been told that they should be caring for others and undemanding. It may be the reason why they want to become underpaid doctors. They have not been told that they can be good at inventing, building things, creating the future, taking risks and leading.

To illustrate this, just watch TV, and count how many times you see news, commercials, movies, TV series or video games that valorize women in such roles. You will be lucky if you find one.

Q2: What do you think could be done to address this gender imbalance? Are you optimistic that the so-called "glass ceiling", i.e. the invisible fences blocking women from entering and advancing up within the aviation industry, will eventually be tackled?

Things have favorably evolved since I started working almost thirty year ago. One main reason is pro-active policies. For example, it is now the policy of the European commission to ensure an exact parity in the panels of advisory and evaluating experts. This may seem artificial at first, but it is a way to prime the pump for creating role models, trigger self-assurance and inspiration for women. When I was younger I was against affirmative action because I wanted to be recognized for my talents, not for being part of a quota. I changed my mind when I realized that change will not happen on its own, no matter how talented women are. Change needs help.

Another helping factor was that higher managers and decision-makers, mostly men, became aware when they their own bright daughters, after graduating, started facing difficulties in their job interviews or on their career. They started giving women a chance in their own companies. Several of my bosses (all men... ) have played supporting, inspirational and encouraging roles.

Solidarity, cooperation and sharing experience between women are necessary. Women networks have emerged and their value-added are now fully recognized. Role models and tutoring by men or women would have been extremely helpful in my younger professional years and should be encouraged.

The support and goodwill of people in charge, pro-action and policies are necessary, but in the end the glass ceiling must be broken by women themselves. Because of education and models surrounding us, we continue being less assertive and limit ourselves. For example, when given a promotion, a woman will more often ask "Can I get a training to do this job properly?", while a man will more often say "I deserve a salary raise". Becoming aware of such differences, that we do not see because they are so usual, requires special effort and attentiveness.

The glass ceiling is not proper to aviation industry, it exists in all areas were power, status or money are at stake.

Q3: Throughout your career, have you experienced any discrimination because of your gender or been treated differentially in the work place in comparison to men? Do you think it was harder for you to succeed in this industry because you are a woman?

Ever since I started studying mechanical engineering, I continuously heard stupid things.  A technical drawing professor found it witty to say that "women cannot see in 3D" (I was one of the best in the class and got the technical drawing unit with honors); I got intrusive questions about my private life on job interviews; a worker in a factory expressed his surprise because I asked him a "technical question"; a man, to whom I said I worked on aircraft engines, laughed and asked "do you clean them?". I was whistled at by workers when going through a manufacturing unit. I have to stop the list but I have countless similar anecdotes.

Such situations, taken one by one, may seem harmless, even funny. But their repetition forms a continuous feedback at women, meaning "you are not fit for the job". We need determination not to let it grow on us. Fortunately, these situations involved people who did not know me, while most of my bosses and co-workers, who knew my competences, acted with me in the same professional manner as they did with male colleagues.

The only concrete evidence of discrimination I got was when I managed about a hundred people. When looking over the salaries of my teams, I realized that my own salary was not that good. I asked for a raise and I got it. But more importantly, I observed that the salaries of women in my teams were significantly lower, with no reason. I raised several salaries to a fair level, and my company was supportive of this action.

Q4: Part of the "gender gap" problem is down to the lack of visible role models. In an effort to inform, motivate and intrigue young girls to consider the aviation sector as an attractive and fascinating work option, can you share with us what has been the most memorable working experience or person you met, during the course of your career?

My first emotions were when I saw, flying at the Paris airshow, aircraft for which I had designed engine parts, such as the Rafale and the Airbus 321.

Climbing up and inside an A380 on the assembly line to check our equipment being installed was the most impressive technical experience I got. It was also quite physical!

On a different note, thanks to my activities in R&T European and institutional affairs, I was proud to give a presentation at the European parliament a few years ago, to meet MEPs and high level European Commission people, up to commissioners and even the EC president Barroso. More recently, I had the opportunity at the last Paris airshow to present our research to several politicians and members of government. I enjoy very much that aspect of my job.

Q5: Have you always wanted to follow a career in the Aviation sector? Was this a childhood dream of yours and what has been your greatest motivation for choosing this profession?

I do not remember it as a childhood dream. But when I started my Master's degree at the Mechanical and Aerospace engineering department of the University of Delaware (USA), I started being interested in aviation and space. I was fascinated by the museum of air and space in Washington DC. A friend of mine owned an airplane and we took some rides. When I went back to France, I got 3 job offers. Two of them, one in automobile and the other in military industry, fitted exactly my training but I was irresistibly attracted to the job offer at Snecma, because it was about aircraft engines. It was by far the sector with the highest technology-edge.

Q6: Having succeeded in this "male dominated" sector, what would you like to say to the young girls considering to follow a career in Aeronautics? Do you have any words of advice?

I make the following recommendations to female students, but most of them are also valid for male students:

  • Nobody should decide for you what is important in your life. If you have a dream, go for it.
  • Dare and demand. You are more likely to get what you ask for than what you deserve.
  • Underestimating yourself may leave your dream job to less competent people
  • Salary matters! Be alert and benchmark to make sure you get the right salary.
  • Aim at the best schools and universities and have one or more long-term international experience.
  • Be aware of the differences of education between men and women, not to copy men but to understand what school and university do not teach you and get all the assets on your side. There is a lot of literature on this topic
  • Have as many (or few) children as you wish and do not listen to those who tell you that having a private life will hamper your career.
  • Have fun on your job.

Date posted: March 15, 2016, 1:48 pm

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