Last winter I joined an amazing organization called Elevate Aviation as a volunteer mentor. An amplifying voice, it provides information, mentorship and scholarships to women who are interested in joining the aviation industry. The aviation industry has vastly lower numbers of women than men, and our team at Elevate works hard to provide access to women from women who are actually in the industry. We are made up of representatives from both the civilian and military industries and from both the operations and support ends of the industry and we are proud to share our own experiences with the aim of inspiring other women who may believe the industry is closed off to them.
One of the projects that Elevate takes on every year is an annual fundraiser calendar featuring women in aviation, the proceeds of which go to the Lois Hole Hospital for Women. The calendars from 2016 and 2017 featured two of my friends, a helicopter pilot and an aerospace engineer, respectively. They were beautifully done – very professional and elegant – but I really wasn’t sure about the calendar as a messaging tool. What exactly was it trying to communicate? So I was somewhat hesitant when the program manager asked if I would be interested in being one of the models for the 2018 calendar. How exactly was modelling for this going to empower me further, and more so, how was it going to help others who might be interested in a career in aviation?
I was also concerned about the image this was portraying – no matter how you say it, ‘calendar girl’ doesn’t often come with the most positive stereotype. Was this really the best way to represent ourselves and our industry? After getting selected, my anxiety only worsened. Not only was I self-conscious that my body type wasn’t going to match the tall, lean size 4 model image I had in my head, the more I talked about it with peers the more I wondered if I had made the right choice. A senior leader in my workplace at the time, was I setting a good example for my subordinates? We are a very conformist organization that is extremely careful about how we represent ourselves. Was I professional to have agreed to do this in the first place? Moreover, I worried that I wasn’t staying true to my own feminist values and ideals by agreeing to participate in a project that would literally put women on the wall as decoration.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Upon arriving in Edmonton for the photo shoot what I found was a community of like-minded women with an immediate understanding of one another based on our passion for aviation and our similar experiences working in a male-dominated industry. I showed up on Friday night, a ball of nerves about the shoot and spending the weekend with a group of “models”, and left on Sunday afternoon with a group of genuine friends who truly understood me. Empowering.
In this network of aviation professionals, I also found a new group of peers and mentors. We shared our journeys, our struggles, our successes and failures with one another, with raw honesty. Never before have I felt such an immediate connection with people in such a short period of time. I knew right away that from that point forward, I had an incredible community that would support me as I move forward in my career. Empowering.
I saw quickly that I had joined a well-organized grassroots organization. Only a few years old, Elevate had really taken off in a short period of time. This is due to the boundless energy and determination of our founder, Kendra Kincade, and her team of volunteers who spend endless hours making this organization a success. Their love of aviation and desire to see the women around them succeed was limitless, and we all left that weekend feeling incredibly inspired to do our own part to help those that work alongside us or come after us. Empowering.
Kendra also interviewed each of us to hear our story. These interviews are connected to our photo in the calendar and will be shared on the Elevate website and social media pages. They link the beautiful photo in the calendar to the actual journey into aviation, and it is here that the real connection is made. She asked questions about why I was interested in aviation, what was my training journey like, if my family supported me, what struggles did I have; it is the most honest I have been in speaking about my career, probably ever. This interview becomes a story, a story that is watched by women and young girls all over the country, who identify with it and think, “wow, she’s just a normal person like me. Maybe I could be in aviation, too”. Empowering.
Finally, the photoshoot was one of the best experiences of my life. By the time it started, I was so nervous that I was nearly sick – this was so completely outside of my comfort zone. In the end, it was an extremely positive experience that really boosted my self-confidence, and doing something that made me nervous and relinquishing control to the professionals was really good for my personal development. The degree of professionalism that goes into this project is what truly makes it a success. Our photographer Donna, from Donna Lynn Photography, is an absolute pro. She has a knack for being able to pull the strongest personality traits and emotions out of you. During that photoshoot, which I was so reluctant about initially, I felt strong and beautiful and confident to put my trust in those around me. Empowering.
And that’s when I GOT it.
My whole career has been a balancing act of strength and beauty. For the first few years when I was in the training system, I was told I was “too girly” and “not tough enough” to succeed. Because I didn’t fit the cookie cutter mould of a stereotypical military officer, I would never be a good leader. It didn’t matter that I had excellent marks, was bilingual or was involved in every social and volunteer organization in my school; because I liked pink and because I wasn’t as strong as the guys, I wasn’t going to be a good officer. Somehow, celebrating my femininity made me less. Thankfully I am extremely stubborn and refused to conform – a common theme among the women in Elevate – figuring that if I was going to make a career of this, then I had to figure out how to do it my own way, in my own style.
Everything changed when I got out of the training system and into my actual job. Suddenly no one cared that I was a so-called “girly girl” because I was actually really good at my job. The ‘square peg round hole’ scenario of the early years was gone and it was then that I truly began to shine. Over the years, I have been able to maximize the skills I bring to the table. All those social events I organized that were dubbed as ‘party planning’ led to me being hyper organized and a good planner, vital skills in the logistics industry. All those times I had to fight down another stereotype turned me into a leader that is not afraid of standing up for my team or what I believe is right. Being “too nice, too emotional” actually meant that I had empathy and emotional intelligence; skills that are absolutely critical when you work with personnel every day as I do. I often see people in some of the very worst periods of their lives and being able to take a supportive but firm approach is essential. It’s not to say I’m a pushover. People who have worked for me over the years would probably say I’m the opposite and I wouldn’t blame them; I’m not the easiest person to work for. I’m Triple Type A: demanding, a hard worker with high standards for quality. And yes, still feminine. And that’s because strength and beauty aren’t mutually exclusive; I can kick ass just as easily in combat boots as I can in stilettos and feel equally good doing it.
As my Dad always says, “kid, you gotta do YOU”. I am finally at a point where I feel great with who I am as a person and a leader in our industry. I am so excited to have that showcased in this amazing project, that celebrates women who have embraced who they are and are doing things their way. I think my calendar photo portrays a story of a strong and beautiful woman going somewhere with purpose, and doing it with a fair amount of sass. Being able to celebrate my strengths and continue working on my weaknesses – and realizing that being girly isn’t one of them – with an organization of women behind me championing me as I take on new challenges is, in a word, empowering.