Let’s be perfectly honest… When we think of flight attendants we think of them as female and when we think of aircraft engineers we think of them as men. We’re not entirely to blame for these preconceptions – these roles were traditionally segregated by gender with airlines using female cabin crew as a key element of their advertising, while aircraft hangars were rarely ever visited by a woman.
But while some airlines and other industry organisations haven’t yet gone to nearly enough effort to challenge these old fashioned stereotypes, it’s nice to see roles in engineering and other traditionally male-dominated careers open up to more and more women.
When Rachel Whatmough first joined British Airways as a member of cabin crew she only intended to keep her wings for a year. Rachel wanted to visit some new destinations before leaving the airline to pursue a university degree in chemistry – before long though, Rachel had made the momentous decision to not bother going to university at all. When her friends were graduating three years later, Rachel was still flying high.
“I felt privileged to be travelling the world and seeing and doing so many things that my friends weren’t able to,” Rachel explains. “I especially loved visiting the Caribbean islands, they really are breathtaking.”
But during her time at the airline, Rachel kept on bumping into the myriad of aircraft engineers that swarm over an aircraft during turnarounds and pre-departures – she wondered whether she might be able to pursue her passion for science and aviation without having to leave the airline.
“It was time for a new challenge,” said Rachel ahead of International Women in Engineering Day.
“Once I realised that I could still work for British Airways, but as an Aircraft Mechanic, it was an easy decision to swap my cabin crew uniform for overalls.”
Luckily for Rachel that was a decision that was definitely supported by British Airways – she’s now been an aircraft engineer for 10-years and is currently on maternity leave having recently given birth to a daughter. Perhaps, one day, her daughter will follow in her mother’s footsteps and pursue a STEM career.
“I would definitely recommend a career change and it’s never too late to make the move,” Rachel says of her experience. “Being cabin crew really helped me to understand how even the smallest delay can affect our customers and I always keep that in mind when we’re under pressure.”
According to British Airways, the airline currently offers a three-year apprenticeship programme in Aircraft Maintenance which is open to anyone, of any age, and at any stage of their career. Students can also apply to take part in week-long work experience placements at the airline’s engineering bases in Heathrow, Gatwick, Cardiff and Glasgow.