9 Mar 2021
To mark International Women’s Day, Aviation Business News' Melissa Moody spoke with Sajedah Rustom, chief executive officer at AJW Technique about working in an industry typically seen as dominated by men.
Brought up in an entrepreneurial family, Sajedah Rustom says that she benefitted from an environment that prioritised the cultivation of strong leadership skills which could be applied across all industries. This put her in good stead for taking over as chief executive officer of the maintenance hub in 2019.
Often reminded to “keep an open mind and learn the detail, roll up your sleeves, dive deep and anything is possible”, she certainly made the mantra count.
Rustom started in the aerospace industry at Bombardier Regional Aircraft in 2004, having worked in mostly tech and other industries. As a Six Sigma agent she was tasked with reengineering all commercial aviation interfaces and processes for the division. Rustom eventually moved into various strategic, technical and commercial roles and touched all aspects of the industry across commercial and business aviation. Her experience ranged from product development to sales, to parts and maintenance delivery, through to customer experience, which helped her “see the business from multiple vantage points and from the ground up through the product, supplier and customer lens”, she explains. That experience has certainly been called upon in her current role.
When AJW Technique was acquired back in 2012, it had just seven employees and acted as AJW Group’s strategic hub for Air Canada’s repair work. Ruston says that it has since grown to cover immense capabilities across Boeing, Airbus, Embraer and Bombardier aircraft, processing 35,000 units a year across 6,000 repairs. “I am proud of the transformation we have fostered in the past two years, having started in the organisation at the lucky seven-year mark,” she adds.
Rustom considers herself fortunate that her own experience as a woman in leadership within aviation “has been a powerful and positive journey”. She has also had strong collaborators and advocates “at every step”.
“People are what make experiences great and memorable,” she says. “Credentials aside, personality and communication skills count for a lot. I was always encouraged to promote creativity, to be dynamic, and this came to be respected and appreciated with every role I undertook.”
Rustom believes that things are improving in the MRO world in terms of equal representation and opportunities. “Women are becoming increasingly passionate about this incredible industry and, as a result, more women are coming up in these professions and making their mark in leadership roles,” she notes.
Although Rustom’s experience has been largely positive, she acknowledges that this has not been the case for every woman.
In her view, success in the industry has never been about gender specifically. It is about having a vision, the ability to lead, challenge, create and build winning teams that can face business challenges with an entrepreneurial and factual mindset.
“Unfortunately, the gender gap still exists prevalently in our industry,” she concedes. “My experiences have been immensely positive, and I advocate for other women to have the same experience. However, many of the women and young entrepreneurs I coach perpetually remind me that we still have shifts in understanding to make at all levels.”
According to the Women in Aviation and Aerospace Charter’s (WIAAC) co-chair, and chief customer officer of Rolls-Royce, Jacqui Sutton, in 2018 the average median gender pay gap for the top seven airlines was 40, “severely” worse than the UK average of 15.
“This large gender pay gap is the result of a severe lack of women in senior management, pilot roles and engineering functions at airlines,” Sutton explains.
It is often forgotten that women have played an integral role in aviation since World War Two when they stepped up to fill gaps where men had left for battle, entering the workforce for the first time to build the very aircraft that helped win the war. However, after all these years, “the needle has not moved enough, yet”, Rustom says.
According to Women in Aviation: A Workforce Report, a recent data collection by the University of Nebraska at Omaha Aviation Institute, women in aviation are underrepresented primarily in technical and leadership roles and overrepresented in low income, low profile positions. Of each of the areas of aviation, women make up only 1.5 per cent of airline captains and 5.1 per cent of all pilots, 2.4 per cent of mechanics, 3 per cent of CEOs and other leadership positions, and 16 per cent of airport managers and air traffic control.
One of the ways to combat this is through direct business support, Rustom emphasises. She cites scholarships, such as those offered by Boeing to increase female presence in under-represented careers such as pilots and certified maintenance technicians. Internships, research partnerships and mentor networks are also something she is passionate about supporting.
“My mantra has always been to build a well-balanced leadership team, with complementary skillsets and gender balance which always includes a strong female participation,” she explains.
“The female component has included engineers, some MBAs, tech certifications and others with varying educational backgrounds. They all share a strong creative, technical and commercial acumen, balanced with a progressive approach and the determination to excel in everything they and their teams do.
“I’ve had the luxury of coaching many smart, strong women and they, in turn, are encouraged to coach and raise up diversity and women in their teams. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
To get women into roles that need more gender balance, Rustom believes it starts with schools and encouraging youngsters in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.
“I have three girls myself and I’m delighted that my 15-year-old daughter wants to be an engineer. I actively promote STEM workshops and courses for girls as this is really the initial engagement required to progress more women into aerospace and deviate from the gender stereotypical industries,” she reports.
“It is a lot easier now than it was 10 years ago to inform ourselves about the MRO world, connect with an open network of professionals and access recruitment programmes designed to bring more women into the aviation workforce.”
One of the biggest issues when addressing gender balance across the industry is the low proportion of women gaining STEM qualifications. Statistics from the 2020 WISE (Women into Science and Engineering) report showed that in the UK only 23 per cent of students studying physics at A-Level were girls, with the figure at 14 per cent for computing.
“Our focus is to identify potential at an early stage, ensuring both women and men are provided with equal opportunity to grow their talent and progress their skill set,” Rustom explains. AJW achieves this through initiatives such as a company-wide flexible working policy that adapts to fit the needs of individuals.
Unfortunately, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic it is thought that progress in the workplace could be set back as much as six years due to performance and presence being judged negatively when caregiving responsibilities are a priority. The challenges faced mean that women will consider leaving or pausing careers, resulting in less women on track to be future leaders, she adds.
According to WIAAC’s Sutton, the McKinsey Global Institute recently found that although women account for 39 per cent of global employment, they also accounted for over 50 per cent of job losses through the pandemic. When asked if the pandemic impacted gender inclusivity, Sutton “absolutely” thinks it did. “The existing inequalities have left women more vulnerable than their male counterparts,” she says.
But if leaders within the industry know what is happening, they can try and reverse any damage. “Diversity and inclusion is ethically essential for the aviation industry to thrive,” Rustom implores. “It is our obligation to address gender parity. Young women need to see more examples of successful women throughout the industry, from pilots to technicians, to the C-Suite. The industry needs to continue to invest in inclusive talent management and career pathing.”
As well as becoming the 100th signatory of the WIAAC charter in 2019, and taking part in mentorships and charities aimed at encouraging girls into STEM subjects, AJW is currently in the process of implementing unconscious bias training as part of its induction programme for all new employees, as well as for existing staff.
The company is also supporting several employees at its headquarters in Slinfold, Sussex in the UK to launch an employee-led mentoring and networking programme for women across the company.
For Rustom, focusing on the future is key, and we are still in the beginning stages. “It starts with schools, universities, development plans from every level and then ultimately in C-Suites and boards, actively making decisions to promote and foster diversity, including female entrepreneurship,” she concludes.
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