CEO Interview: Women in Aviation International

CEO Interview: Women in Aviation International

DALLAS — Women in Aviation International (WAI) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the encouragement and advancement of women in all aviation and aerospace career fields and interests. 

With more than 157 chapters worldwide and 361 corporate members, WAI aims to bring education and equality in culture to the aviation industry.

Airways spoke with WAI’s CEO, Allison McKay, about the organization’s operations and educational programs.

WI: We are glad to be having this interview with you. Tell us more about WAI.

WAI CEO Alisson McKay

AM: WAI is an organization that started in the mid-nineties. I think they’re the industry, and the face of the industry hasn’t changed much since the organization was started.

The goal was to create a more inclusive workforce and a sense of community for women who may not work with many other women in their daily lives. So, to get women together at an annual conference, the organization started to create a mechanism for networking.

From there, the nonprofit was born because there was such a need for women in this industry to collaborate, network, and seek some professional development. Then there were the incredible stories of mentors and truly inspirational women who rose through the ranks of this industry.

Since its inception, we’ve also added to the organization in terms of trying to get young girls interested in aviation. And so we started a program called Girls in Aviation Day, which is a worldwide event.

Typically, it’s the last Saturday of September every year. Our corporate members and partners host events for young girls, ranging from five to two thousand depending on the location.

They introduce the girls to mentors, women who are doing jobs in this industry, and fun activities for them. They get to see planes and helicopters. They all vary based on where they’re being hosted, but we hope we can inspire the next generation to enter the industry.

The camp you’re talking about, is it hosted only in the USA?

No. We have worldwide events, and we have chapters throughout the world. While we are the international arm of the organization, we also have chapters that are locally operated by our members, and those are not only in the United States, but they’re worldwide as well. Our chapter, too, can host Girls in Aviation Day events.

Where are you based or located in Africa?

We are in Nigeria and have a presence in South Africa.

I know you have told us about WAI, but what does the organization exactly do and stand for?

We are all about getting young women into the industry and then keeping them in it. We have a lot of youth programs geared toward exposing young kids to the aviation industry, and once they’ve kind of got the bug and they want to get into this industry, we also have a really robust scholarship program that gives them access to funds to get the training they need to get into this industry.

To date, we have given away US$15m. It’s not just for pilots or maintenance, it’s very robust. We have engineering scholarships, continuing education scholarships, air traffic control scholarships, and pretty much a really great cross-section of industry segments and career paths.

Are the career paths and educational scholarships you’re talking about the only educational programs you support?

At our conference, we host a number of education and professional development seminars. We have a yearly conference this coming year, in 2023. It’s going to be at the end of February in Long Beach, California, and we have a number of educational opportunities available at our conference as well.

Do you have educational opportunities for women who are minorities? Women without degrees, for example, and those who have recently developed an interest in the aviation industry

Actually, we have a lot of stories like that. Stories of our members who at some point in their lives decided that that’s not the career they wanted and they want to learn how to fly or maintain an aircraft. And so we have a range of scholarships that are suited for different careers, different times in your career.

So whether you are starting out or you’re very well established, there’s something for everybody. We have a very generous donor pool that wants to be able to offer something to everybody who wants to be in this industry. 

Speaking of donors, do you have any ongoing partnerships with companies or other organizations?

Yes. We have about 361 corporate members, and they support us in a number of ways. Some are straightforward donations to scholarship programs or the development of female pilots, for example. But others sponsor our conference.

They give us money so that we can host this conference. We also have a lot of grant opportunities, so we apply for grants to fund our program development. 

Photo: WAI

What are the major challenges you have identified that affect women in the aviation industry?

I had the opportunity to sit on the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Women in Aviation Advisory Board (WAAB), and we published a report with 55 recommendations on how to make the industry more inclusive to everybody. But through the research, we found that a lot of women have talked about harassment that they have experienced while holding a job within this industry.

Seventy-seven percent (77%) of those that were interviewed experienced some form of harassment throughout their career. So I think one of the biggest challenges is how to change the culture of this industry to be an inclusive culture for everybody and culture is probably the hardest thing to change within organizations, within the industry. But some of these recommendations that we have in the report are designed to address culture.

So the major challenge that you identify is harassment?

No. I would say the major challenge is creating an inclusive culture. Harassment is one subset of that. But if you are to look at women as they progress through their careers, we have a number of challenges and opportunities that are specific to us.

Once a woman gets toward a childbearing age, for example, organizations have to look at what programs and benefits allow women not to have to decide if they’re going to work or have a family that allows them to have both. That is not unique to women but it often is described as a women’s issue whereas men need the same flexibility to have both.

But historically, they seem to have been able to do both much more seamlessly than we are. So we have to look at why that is and what some of the programs are that we can put in place to keep women in the industry once they have decided to have a family.

Photo: WAI

In what ways has Women in Aviation International helped women overcome these challenges? Any programs for that?

Yes. We have a mentorship program called Mentor Connect. And I think it is important throughout your career to find mentors who can tell you how they did it and help you pave the way for yourself.

We get asked a lot of times by young women who are of University age whether they can be pilots and mothers. And the only way that question gets answered is by showing women how it’s done and that is where mentorship is so important.

It’s not just at the beginning of your career, it’s also answering questions on how to progress in your career, how to keep growing in your career, and so we really try to match women with mentors that will help them through their career and stay in their career.

How about women who are already in the industry and have faced certain challenges that pushed them to the wall? They probably need counseling to get over whatever affected them.

We don’t actually offer traditional counseling through the organization, but we think that by matching them with mentors who have had the same experience, they can share how they dealt with those types of issues.

What have been some of WAI’s accomplishments for 2022?

Aviation for Women November/December 2022. Image: WAI

In 2022, we created a program around Girls in Aviation Day, and it is a fantastic event. We open up the world to thousands of girls, allowing them to experience everything that aviation has to offer. But historically, it’s a yearly event, so they get excited about the industry, and when they go back to their homes, they might not have access to anything aviation until they get to that next Girls in Aviation Day event.

We wanted to create a year-round program of offering so that kids could stay engaged in the industry throughout the year. A number of items fall underneath that program of Girls in Aviation for girls, we have a magazine called Aviation for Girls that we have expanded. Instead of publishing once a year it’s going to be published twice a year. That will start in January.

We also created an app so kids can download the Aviation For Girls app. It’s completely free and it offers tours of museums, airports, and manufacturing facilities. It also offers interviews with mentors, activities, and access to all of the magazines that we have published. It’s a year-round activity learning spot for kids.

Additionally, we have created a junior membership category of our membership so if you are 18 years old and under, membership to WAI is free. And so you have access to all the benefits of membership completely for free until you become an adult, and that has been incredibly well received. We opened that membership category in June of this year and we already have 1500 young people signed up to be part of the organization.

It just shows that there is such a desire from the next generation to be involved in this industry. We are going to keep growing that in 2023. We have a lot of plans to expand our social media footprint for kids through Youtube and TikTok, to meet them where they are and where their interests in digesting information come from.

We will have some webinars that are tailored for children. We are focused on how to keep kids engaged so that we can get them into the industry.

I notice your emphasis and focus are on the kids; is that correct?

I would say it’s half and half. I think 2022 has been a year of a lot of growth in the youth education segment because historically, we have had program offerings for those that had already started on their career journey, whether they were in school or the industry, and that was through our annual conference and some of our other events that we support throughout the year.

Scholarship awards are a major benefit of WAI membership, and they help our members reach their goals and advance into the aviation and aerospace careers they have dreamed about. Photo: WAI

Statistically speaking, has there been growth in the number of kids enrolled between 2021 and 2022?

Yes. We did an informal survey of university aviation programs to see what the demographics were like at that level, and the number of women is much higher for those that are in the university programs than they are in our industry. So that goes to show that we are making some progress in getting a much more diverse workforce than we currently have.

Have there been challenges that have hindered the fulfillment of WAI’s set targets for this year?

Obviously, there are challenges given the fact that over the last 20 years we haven’t moved the needle much, so we are always looking at how we can be more successful, how we can reach out to more kids, and how we can meet them where they are.

A lot of our challenges are on the financial side like how do we pay for all of these programs that we are looking to start?

I read the recommendations made by the WAI board. How far have you gotten with working them out?

We had several recommendations that were designed for the U.S. government, the FAA, and the Department of Transportation, and then we had recommendations that were specific to the industry.

If we look at the recommendations that were designed for the government, we have not made much progress on that front. We have been working with the U.S. Congress to try to get a permanent advisory board stood up, and that is a process that takes a lot of effort to get through. So we would need a bill in Congress to allow for a permanent advisory board and that’s what we are working toward now.

The FAA hasn’t moved much on recommendations as we laid them out in March. They were waiting for the Youth in Aviation Task Force report to come out, which came out in September.

So now we hope that we can get some traction to move those recommendations forward on the industry side and we are seeing a lot more progress mostly because of the demand that we came out of the pandemic and the workforce needed to be built up fast. It highlighted the fact that our pipeline was not very robust, and the only way to expand that pipeline is to attract more diversity; to open the doors wider to those we tried to attract.

If you look at, for example, the United Aviate program, they are looking to have a diverse pool of attendees, 50%, and want women of diverse backgrounds. And you see that with the major carriers —they are trying to create programs that create a much more diverse workforce than they ever had.

Thank you so much for having this interview with us.

Thank you.

Photo: WAI

Quick Facts about WAI


Membership Classification (percentage of members)

  • 63% US-based Professionals/Enthusiasts
  • 7% Professionals/Enthusiasts Outside the US
  • 28% High school/College and University students
  • 2% Corporate Organizations/Corporations
  • More than 15,000 active members

Member Benefits*

  • Aviation for Women, the official bimonthly publication of Women in Aviation International
  • WAI Connect monthly electronic newsletter
  • Annual conference for WAI members in all fields of aviation and aerospace
  • Local chapters in communities around the world
  • Government and industry representation
  • Educational outreach programs
  • Network base for personal and career development
  • Scholarships
  • Merchandise and services discounts
  • Aeromedical Advisory Partnership
  • Legal Advisory Program

*Corporate members receive additional benefits including exhibit discounts at the annual conference, advertising discounts in Aviation for Women magazine and listings in WAI publications.

In 1992, WAI established the WAI Pioneer Hall of Fame to honor women who have made significant contributions as record-setters, pioneers, or innovators. You can peruse the Hall of Fame here.


Featured image courtesy: Women in Aviation International Great Lakes Chapter

A proficient writer, social media manager, and educator having expertise in a variety of disciplines. She's based in Kampala, Uganda. Follow her on Twitter @WinifredItungu. Email: winifred@airwaysmag.com.

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