When Malaysia-based Coleen Tan joined the aviation industry a decade back, it was a mysterious and fascinating world for her. She rose through the ranks at Honeywell Aerospace throughout her career in the male-dominated industry, to reach her current position of Regional Sales Manager, Asia Pacific for B&GA (Business & General Aviation).

Throughout her career, she has had to struggle, not only because of not having an in-depth knowledge about the industry but also the biases against women within and outside the industry. In this chat with the Women Icons Network, she shares how on her efforts to improve her standing in the field by continuously taking on new challenges as well as encouraging more women to join aviation in different capacities.

The Take Off

It all started with a recruiter calling Coleen who was a fresh graduate about an opportunity in the aviation giant. “I had majored in Public Relations so joining the aviation industry was beyond what I had ever imagined,” she describes her first reaction to the offer. However, it was too good to turn down and soon she joined the company as a Global Planner who planned and strategized the company’s purchase of aircraft parts in the most cost-effective way and at the right timing.

One of her most amusing discoveries in this phase of career was that almost every aircraft in the sky, be it commercial, business aviation, or defence, has a Honeywell product in it. This made her more passionate about the work she was doing. “I love how our technologies contribute to flight safety and efficiency,” she enthuses.

Her second role in the company was that of a Customer Support Manager that allowed her to gain greater insights of the business. It was her desire to learn as much as she could about the different aspects of the aviation industry that led her to move to the role of Aftermarket Sales Manager for Honeywell advanced technologies and solutions for the B&GA operations a few years later.

Pandemic Learnings 

She believes that the one lesson that everyone must take from 2020 is that health is the priority over everything else. “One needs a healthy body to continue achieving new and great experiences,” she explains.

Workwise, the big challenge has been to build a rapport with customers and colleagues in the absence of face-to-face meetings. Therefore, Coleen decided to pause and re-strategize her position. This helped her become more efficient despite not being able to travel and meet people.

She also made use of the time saved from commuting to participate in several social media discussions regarding the aviation industry. Be it a Facebook Live about women’s role in the industry or Aviation & Aerospace live interview, she made use of these platforms to share knowledge and insights to facilitate better understanding of the industry among the general public.

Turbulent Skies

Being dominated by men, aviation was not an easy industry for Coleen Tan. This was made even more difficult as she didn’t have any background in the field that would equip her with the information she needed. The learning curve was steep and yet she decided to take over new roles and new challenges.

She explains her career strategy by saying, “It’s a roadmap I built for myself to understand the overall business of the aviation industry and customer needs from different perspectives. This really enabled me to recommend more comprehensive proposals that address the challenges that the different business aviation operators are facing today.”

One of the greatest challenges for her is to prove her competency among all the experts who have a much in-depth knowledge of the industry in terms of trends and technologies. Building her credibility was especially difficult as a young female working in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

Fortunately, the company helped her through this ordeal by means of growth programs which have made her confident about that she is being given an equal opportunity to grow, and that her talent is being valued. “This is proven through my experience switching into the different roles in the business aviation division over the past 10 years despite being a female. I may have had limited knowledge of the different roles and functions at the start, but I am totally confident in my competency to earn my place at the table, thanks to the opportunities provided,” she says.

Women in Aviation 

Women in the aviation and aerospace industries need to work doubly hard to be seen as credible and be trusted with responsibilities, believes Coleen. She recalls an incident from her customer support days in which she told an aircraft maintenance engineer not to go forward with a maintenance task. “Based on the failure described, I told him it would cost them more if they go ahead to perform maintenance on the aircraft wings and engine as it’s beyond their authorization. Despite my feedback, he moved ahead to “troubleshoot” the engine of the aircraft,” she remembers.

The cost did escalate, just as she had told him. She then had to work with his team to minimize the loss. The incident helped her earn some credibility in the industry especially among the mostly male engineering staff. She credits the resources provided by Honeywell for being able to respond to the challenging customer issues in spite of her non-technical background.

She stresses the point that there is an unconscious bias in the aviation industry as well as its customers that women’s roles are only limited to being air stewardesses. “I find this offensive as I believe that many other professions in this industry, such as pilot, engineers, sales and support teams, should practise gender equality,” she says, adding there is no shortage of examples of female industry leaders today.

At the same time, there is a need to change this perception among the public at large, she believes. She often talks of her experiences in the aviation industry in public events in Malaysia. “I also hope that more women would be encouraged and inspired to come on board the aviation industry,” she says.

Gender Balance at Work

According to Coleen, an organisation can show its commitment towards a gender balanced workforce through consistent education and communications on gender equality, having anti-harassment policy in place as well as hiring a good mix of gender in the workplace. She believes that a good mix of gender makes for great teams as every person has different strengths. “Also, we can inspire each other to be better by exchanging views, perspectives, and experiences,” she says.

Talking about Honeywell’s Inclusion and Diversity initiatives, she informs, “I have seen significant changes during my past 10 years with more female talent in the team across different business divisions. Some of the women leaders in the company are the main brains that initiate the latest technologies for aviation, such as blockchain and connectivity technology.”

Achieving this gender equality is not possible without the help of men, she believes. She says she has a great appreciation for men who can celebrate the success of their female colleagues. If you are a people manager, please give fair opportunities and recognise the working relationship with females as a mutual partnership to achieve diversity.

Future Perfect

While the corporate world is doing its bit to promote gender diversity, Coleen feels the real changes should start from the family. “Sons should be taught to have a role in doing household chores, such as cleaning, cooking and other similar tasks that are usually associated with daughters. Fathers can be role models as well,” she suggests. This change in the domestic sphere is the most challenging aspect of the fight towards gender equality, she believes.

She asserts that until the next generation understands the need for gender diversity and practise it, the battle is an uphill one. “When sons and daughters have not practised respecting the different genders, corporate policies can do little good, especially in traditional societies like ours,” she says.