Meet the underdog who is breaking down barriers for women in aviation
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Fiona McKay is on a mission. She’s building an army of both women and men to join her in the goal of making sure that women know how valued they are in the aerospace and defense industries. Today, she becomes the latest recipient of the AeroTime Aviation Achievement Award for her dedication and commitment to aviation and for her efforts to empower and encourage women and the next generation.
The Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Leading Ladies Of…Aerospace and Defense is focused and determined in equal measure. And she is not afraid to speak truth to power and call out anyone who fails to meet the required standards.
There is a calm and confident determination in everything she says. And although there is nothing remotely “underdog” about McKay today, that wasn’t always the case.
Watch the full interview with Fiona Mckay here:
Originally from a manufacturing town in the north of the UK, McKay was the first person from her family to make it to university. She set the bar high with a place at Oxford, where she was seen as a bit of an outsider. “I've always been a bit of an underdog. I was the underdog at school. When I went to university, it was a lot of posh kids. And I wasn't from their circles. And so, I was an underdog there. I was even told to change my accent when I was starting out in my career.”
She now lives in an idyllic part of Washington State, with her husband, dogs and with a lake in the back garden where she regularly takes a dip to clear the afternoon head before working on her groundbreaking projects late into the night.
McKay has a long history in the aerospace, manufacturing, and nonprofit worlds. By her own admission, she was not bitten by the aviation bug in early life like many of us, but she has made up for it since ‘falling into’ the industry after being offered a role at Rolls-Royce that she could not refuse.
“I would love to tell you that I went to Rolls-Royce because I had this amazing moment flying an airplane or something like that, but I'm going to be honest with you; it was my ego. I loved the fact that I'd be working for Rolls-Royce. It was from there that I learned to love the industry.”
Fiona McKay at Rolls-Royce. Image: Fiona McKay's personal archive.
McKay now recognizes that our industry is one that she will never leave. “Every time I think I'm going to move away from it, I get sucked back in.”
She has worked for some of the biggest companies, from nine years at Rolls-Royce, to Parker Aerospace, and an aerospace trade alliance. She was a Customer Business Director to Boeing, a company with whom she maintains a relationship to this day, now in support of leadership development. And as the CEO of Leading Ladies Of… Aerospace & Defense, she is educating and empowering others and campaigning for equality.
In the early days of her career, she would meet women who did not seem to realize how much potential they had or how valued they should be, so she set out to change that and joined the steering committee of Rolls-Royce Women. “It just became my mission to make sure that women in the industry realized just how worthy they were. And were given some chances that they didn't think were possible for them. I started to feel really passionate about that and wanted to change it.”
There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind about the determination McKay brings to her work and she is spurred on by the memories and experiences of her own career progression. “I had one aviation role where one of the managers said, ‘we've never had anyone do this role that's not a man under 40 years old, so how do we know Fiona's capable?’ I only got to hear about that because of some raw honesty. But these are the kinds of things that that happen to us.
“As I became more senior, I faced a lot more challenges as a woman and it really got to me. I wanted to try and make it different for the women that came behind me. Not different in the sense of go in there and change the system as that's going to take decades. But to actually give women some of the skills that they need to get there and the confidence to know that if they were in a position where they weren't being valued, they could walk away and know that they could be successful in other aerospace companies.”
McKay is clear about her vision, her evidence, and her goals. “What most people don't realize is that the percentage of women in aviation hasn’t changed for 50 years. There are more women here because the industry has grown, not because the percentage has grown and there's still a long way to go.”
The Leading Ladies Of… Aerospace and Defense movement started during the pandemic and McKay sees the ‘virtual’ nature of the origins of the organization as a gift.
“The beauty in the virtual world is that it's much more accessible to people,” she says. “I hear that from a lot of companies that say, ‘I can send 20, 30, 40 of my women, because it's virtual,’ so it gives everybody a chance to participate. And when it's virtual, you can get much better speakers and women can be in the same virtual room as a collection of women that they would never meet otherwise.”
The next big event for the Leading Ladies Of… will take place on September 22, 2022. It’s the annual leadership conference and there is already an impressive lineup of speakers – both female and male allies – with sponsorship already secured from the likes of Airbus, MagniX, Sprit AeroSystems and Valence Surface Technologies.
“Our events are not like other virtual events. People tell us they didn't leave their seat for four hours, even to use the loo! We're saying, these are some of the things that I face. These are some of my opinions on the industry. And this is what we can go do about it. It's real actionable advice that can help you to become a better leader.”
The event is attended by both senior women and those looking to move into leadership in the future, and all allies are welcome to join too.
Image: Fiona McKay's personal archive.
“We welcome male allies, or any allies, because they need to hear about our experiences in order to be allies,” McKay explains. “This year, I'm really proud that for the first time we are opening up to students and military for free.”
It’s sometimes difficult to tackle the elephant in the room when talking about subjects that could be sensitive. But not with McKay, who tackles them head on with an eagerness and enthusiasm I reserve for booking my next companion voucher transatlantic first-class seat. So why is that some women (and men) are not as supportive as they should be?
Without even taking a breath, McKay launches in. “I would like to acknowledge that there are men and women that aren't supportive, but because people expect it less from women, it’s perhaps looked on worse than when men do it. Which is not right, so I'm just going to say that.”
McKay believes that it is all about breaking down barriers. “It's about women saying we need each other and if we break those barriers down between us, we can actually accomplish much more.”
She recalls a moment earlier in her career where she took the initiative to build bridges with a colleague. “I just sat down with her, and I said, ‘you know what…I wasn't very nice’. Since then, we've had a great relationship and we've been propping each other up, but I had to let go of that attitude of ‘Oh, I'm the only woman and I've got to fight for my spot’.”
One of the very first Leadership Labs McKay ran at Leading Ladies Of… was called ‘She's got your back’. It was focused on how women can be allies to one another. “It is a topic that's not talked about often because it's a tough one,” McKay says. “But it's an important one.”
When it comes to men it is a “bit different”, McKay tells me. “With some men, it's just about marching forward, regardless of their resistance, because they don't want to change. But with other men, it's about saying, ‘No, this isn't about women versus men, this is about both of us rising, and together we can both be better’, and showing them the way and allowing them to ask the stupid questions, and not getting angry at them.
“Assume positive intent, choose to educate to begin with, and then that will make the conversations easier. If I know I can say something stupid, and learn from it, then I'm more likely to do that. But if I'm going to get shut down for saying something stupid, then I'm going to keep quiet.”
Image: Fiona McKay's personal archive.
After a conversation with McKay, you can see why one senior aviation executive described her as “vibrant, smart, outspoken and witty”. All four of those characteristics permeated through every part of our interview. She is well known for her engaging, authentic, and energetic style, and there is no doubt that the aerospace and defense industries will hear a lot more from her. I have no doubt some will not want to hear it, but that will simply encourage the tenacious McKay to shout louder and tackle the outdated and suffocating attitudes where they still exist.
If we were looking for a strong advocate to help our industry to progress, become more inclusive, empower our female leaders, and encourage the next generation, then I think we’re in safe hands with Fiona McKay and the Leading Ladies Of…movement.
Don’t forget to register for the Leading Ladies Of… conference on Thursday 22nd September, and get 50% the admission price as an AeroTime reader.
You can register here and just click on ‘general admission’ and use the code AEROTIME2022 to claim your ticket for just $25USD.
Fiona McKay becomes the latest recipient of the AeroTime Aviation Achievement Award
Fiona McKay was named the latest recipient of the AeroTime Aviation Achievement Award as part of AeroTime’s Women in Aviation Campaign.
The citation on her certificate reads: “In recognition of her dedication and commitment to the aviation sector; for her focus on promoting women in aviation, aerospace and defense; for her efforts to encourage and empower female leadership across the aviation industry through Leading Ladies Of Aerospace & Defense and inspiring the next generation. The AeroTime Global Executive Committee recognises the positive influence of these efforts and the significance of their impact on the aviation industry and its people both today and into the future.”
Watch: AeroTime Chairman, Richard Stephenson, presents Fiona Mckay with her Aviation Achievement Award:
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