Edmonton-based panel set to discuss women in aviation, industry heavily made up of men

A panel discussion on Saturday celebrates the work of women in aviation, and covers the gender gap in an industry still filled with mostly men.

Elevate Aviation notes a small percentage of women work as pilots, air traffic controllers

The Alberta Aviation Museum is one of the organizers of a panel discussion on Saturday tackling the gender gap in the aviation industry. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

Sophia Wells wanted to be a pilot ever since she was 12.

When she was an Air Cadet, she toured a military jet. Watching it take off into the sunset, Wells was inspired to pursue the work she does today.

"He took off into the sunset and he rocked his wings over top as he left, and I just fell in love right from there," Wells said in an interview with CBC's Edmonton AM on Friday.

Now, Wells mentors women and other new pilots, as young as 14, as the chief flight instructor at the Edmonton Flying Club. On Saturday, she'll participate in an online panel discussion celebrating women in aviation and encouraging more to pursue work in the industry, a workforce still heavily made up of men.

When Wells first started in the Air Cadets program, she saw a lot of other girls. She says she didn't realize there weren't many women working in aviation until it was pointed out during her training.

How to get more women in the pilot seat. We talk to a flight instructor about the gender gap in aviation. 6:19

Wells said she's lucky not to have had many bad personal experiences as a female pilot, but she said she's heard enough stories of harassment to know it's a problem in the industry. That issue is often exacerbated, she says, by women not seeing other women working in aviation, feeding the idea that the industry isn't for them.

"A lot of them learned about the industry because they had family or friends, or stumbled upon it … so a lot of women don't get into it primarily, from what we found, because they just don't know it's an option and they haven't seen very many women who look like them," Wells said.

"If you don't see it, it's hard to think it's an option for you."

About seven per cent of pilots and six per cent of airplane mechanics are women, according to 2018 report by the Canadian Council of Aviation and Aerospace. 

The panel discussion on Saturday, titled Soaring Opportunities: Exploring Women's Roles and Contributions to Aviation will talk about that divide. The panel was organized by the non-profit Elevate Aviation, along with the Alberta Aviation Museum and STEM Sisters, a group supporting women in science, technology, engineering and math.

The panel wraps up a week of events as part of Elevate Aviation's Virtual Cross Country Tour, that tackled a different aspect of the industry each day for five days. It is part of the Alberta Aviation Museum's eighth annual Women of Aviation Worldwide Week.

Elevate Aviation's work is focused on helping women succeed in the aviation industry. Founder and CEO Kendra Kincade said women still account for small percentages of the commercial pilots, air traffic controllers and aircraft maintenance engineers in Canada.

That problem still persists despite the downturn the industry has faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. And Kincade says when jobs are cut it's often women who, being the last ones hired, are the first ones let go.

But she hopes discussions like Saturday's panel encourage more women to consider working in aviation. Kincade says a shortage of workers that pre-exists the pandemic is likely to continue once the industry stabilizes.

"It's a really good time to come in and start looking at these careers, because there's going to be a shortage, and aviation is really going to be looking for people," said Kincade, who will also host Saturday's panel.

The event is free to attend and streams from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday.