When Navreet Saini walked into her first department meeting at Bell Helicopter, it was a familiar scene. Sitting around the boardroom table were her new co-workers—every last one, a man.
Later that day, she updated her Facebook status: “Department staff meeting. 28 men + me. Pressure is on.”
“It was scary, but I reminded myself that I got picked for a reason,” recalls Saini. Her experience was reflective of an industry where less than 12 percent of aerospace engineering graduates are women.
Saini was only seven when she set her sights on flying planes, but it was her dad that led her in the direction of aerospace engineering. The father of six girls, he recognized early on that Saini—his right-hand daughter for everything from house renovations to car repairs—was meant to work in an applied field.
Saini, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure. “The first time he mentioned it, I thought, “No, no, no,’” she says. “I was nervous. He saw something in me that I didn’t.”
Trusting his judgment, she spent the next four years commuting three hours daily to school from Rexdale. During summers, she worked at Bombardier Aerospace through Ryerson’s Institute for Aerospace Design and Innovation (RIADI) co-op program. Any spare time was dedicated to earning her private pilot’s licence.
Her hard work paid off—when Saini graduated in 2012, she made the dean’s list and shortly afterwards, received a LinkedIn message from Bell Helicopter asking her to come in for an interview.
Although her first meeting was intimidating, she soon discovered that her gender would have little bearing on her career.
“I didn’t feel any discrimination or limitations. I was there to do a job. The projects that I got put on were really incredible,” says Saini.
Now part of the avionics team at PAL Aerospace Engineering, Saini, 29, is taking a page from her father’s book. As a member of Women in Aviation International, she encourages girls to pursue careers in aviation and in 2016, she received the Northern Lights Aero Foundation Rising Star Award for outstanding women in aviation.
Saini believes that women will always have a place at the table—but it’s what they do once there that matters.
“There’s a lot of opportunity to make your own path. If you have ideas, speak up,” she says. “And if the chair’s not there, bring your own chair.”