Being the only woman in an MRO environment is par for the course for WestJet aircraft maintenance engineer Michelle Ballantyne. “My first year of college, there were probably five females in the class,” she says. “By the second year, I was the only girl.”
Ballantyne has been working in aircraft maintenance for WestJet for nearly eight years, a career that started through a high school workers program. Growing up with a father and grandfather working in aviation, Ballantyne was regularly exposed to the industry and ended up following in her father’s footsteps. “I obviously got the bug and [it] never really left,” says Ballantyne. “I enjoy taking things apart and putting them back together, and I love getting my hands dirty and making things work, so the maintenance side of aviation was the best idea for me.”
Today, Ballantyne is the only woman working in aircraft maintenance in western Canada for Encore, a WestJet regional subsidiary. “It’s kind of mindboggling if you’re the only female, but if you love the job and you are good at it, you got hired on for a reason. If you can do the job, then you have the right to do the job,” says Ballantyne.
Considering the dearth of women working in her field, Ballantyne jumped at the chance when she was approached by the organization Elevate Aviation, which works to introduce women to potential careers in the aviation industry. Through mentorships, grants, and speaking tours across Canada, Elevate has been bringing women in the industry together since 2011.
The organization was started by Kendra Kincade, an air traffic controller who initially began raising money through a “Women in Aviation” calendar for a hospital nonprofit with which she was involved. Kincade asked a female coworker at the Calgary International Airport whether she would be interested in appearing in the calendar, and the project snowballed from there. The calendar raised $10,000 in two weeks, and Kincade decided to create more calendars in the following years, given their success. As she began looking for more women in the industry to feature in the calendars, she realized that many of them didn’t work with any other women. For them, the creation of Elevate helped provide a supportive network.
“It was really cool because women were making friends in the industry that they never would have met otherwise,” says Kincade. “We bring women all across Canada together in different aviation careers, both military and civilian.”
Bringing industry women together is at the heart of Elevate’s speaking tour program, which first launched last year. A group of women in different aviation careers, which included Ballantyne, visited five cities in Canada over five days, talking with groups of young women in grade schools and organizations like the Girl Scouts. According to Ballantyne, the group shares how they got into aviation, highlights of their careers, why they love their jobs and how interested young women can get into the industry. After that, there is a Q&A session, with tours of airport facilities such as air traffic control towers or maintenance hangars. While there currently are not complete statistics about how many young women Elevate has reached through these tours, Kincade says they brought in more than 100 women this year to the air traffic control center in Edmonton alone.
This year, the tour will be expanding to 10 cities across Canada, and Kincade says interest continues to grow. “It started with Elevate seeking out groups of women to talk to, but people are starting to find us now, which is really nice,” she says. Elevate, based in Edmonton, is already spreading across Canada, and Kincade says the program would love to expand to other countries such as the U.S. “We just want to make sure that our roots are really strong here and that our mentorship program is really strong before we go too fast,” she says.
The mentorship program pairs young women interested in specific aviation careers with a woman working in that job. “With air traffic control, for instance, we bring them into the control tower and give them a tour. We let them plug in and listen to someone work. And after that, if they want to continue on, we hook them up with a personal mentor.” Kincade says mentors help support mentees through things like applying to schools and prepping for pre-employment tests.
This is all made possible through fundraising efforts such as the yearly Women in Aviation calendar. The 2018 calendar debuted at a launch party October 21 in Edmonton, featuring videos of each woman in the calendar telling her personal story about getting into the aviation industry. Throughout the year, Elevate releases the videos for each month. Proceeds of the calendar will be split between the Lois Hole Hospital for Women and Elevate’s grants, which help young women afford industry training. The 2018 calendar, along with other fundraising information, can be found at elevateaviation.ca