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Ana Lopes

The challenges of participatory gender research in the aviation industry and why it is okay for a researcher to ask for help

Funding makes life much easier for a researcher. Getting it, however, is difficult and can seem like a mystery. I talked with Dr Ana Lopes about her experience in securing funding for research projects, her ongoing work on women’s mentoring in the aviation industry, role models, and why it is important to ask experienced researchers for help.

“You know, securing funding is really challenging. One piece of advice I would give is to first look for small parts of funding that are not as prestigious as research council funding but maybe a bit less competitive. Any funding is good, so if you get a small amount of funding, it really helps you build your confidence, your experience and your CV. ".

"Any funding is good, so if you get a small amount of funding, it really helps you build your confidence, your experience and your CV. Instead of always going straight for the big funding, try to have smaller successes in the meantime, I think that helps. Another thing that would say is, try to partner up with people with more experience than yourself, as a kind of informal mentoring, which is something that I’m very interested in. We need to establish those bridges between people and with those who have more experience than us, more established career researchers. I try to remember to be always open to those kinds of collaborations, because I benefited from them.”

Mentoring women has become one of Ana’s major research interests. Her research looks at questions around women in non-traditional roles, mentoring for women, as well as gender activism. Ana told me about the mentoring project she’s involved in, and how she experienced doing participatory research with people in the aviation industry, who did not always share her feminist world view.

“The last bit of funding that I got was for a participatory piece of research. It’s probably even more difficult to get funding for that kind of research but it's possible, and it's not the first time that I get funding for research of this nature. I was invited to come into this project about knowledge exchange. It was about knowledge exchange between a group of academics and a group of women who work in aviation, a very male dominated industry. When I read the draft proposal, I thought, ‘well, this is the kind of research that I like to do because it's very participatory, it's very much about doing something that actually makes a difference, it is very practical and helps women in this industry’. I jumped at the opportunity. The challenge of this kind of participatory research is that you don't have full control, you can't say, ‘this is what I’m going to do and I’m going to expand this theory, or test this theory, or hypothesis,’ because you're working with other people, you have to be democratic. I guess that at the start, I was a little bit more ambitious, and I wanted to do actions that really address structural issues in their industry. And, in these first meetings, it became apparent that not everyone in the group holds a very feminist activist position. The common denominator that we found was mentoring, which I think is a really good thing. I learned that it can be a great thing but, at first, I thought it’s a bit individualistic, but, as I said, that’s the nature of participatory research: you have to make sure that you do something everyone is comfortable with and which everyone wants to do.”

The participatory research project Ana worked on was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Although Ana has completed the project, she is still working on the mentoring schemes, where she is part of a Steering Committee. I wanted to know more about the people that Ana worked with on the mentoring scheme and her role within the project.

“We started by being a project group, so it was four academics and then about six or so women from different aviation companies, some of them were engineers and some of them managers. One of them had her own jet company and so on. We decided on a kind of division of labour, so that the academics would to the academic research, the interviews and focus groups and surveying women in aviation. That was in order to develop the best possible mentoring scheme. So, both academics and the industry people, let's call them the industry women, would agree, how to implement the findings that we got from our academic research, which we set up to develop this mentoring project. Of course, it would be silly to finish the mentoring project when the funding for our academic project finishes, because the idea is, obviously, for it to grow and develop. So, from that point onwards, myself and my academic colleagues back. But you know, I was also emotionally involved in it, and you know, it's quite important for me to do this work alongside my academic activity so, I’m very glad I can continue to be part of that.”

During the pandemic, Ana saw a much higher demand for mentoring women in the aviation industry.

“This industry suffered a lot during the lockdowns and so on, so there was furlough, a lot of people lost their jobs. That was particular to the aviation industry, and it may not have been the same for other sectors, but I think we all started feeling even more isolated than we felt before, especially in those areas where there are only few women. I think even in our industry, the education sector, as well. We are not underrepresented, there are many women in your area, in the humanities but our work is also very much based on collaborations and all of a sudden, we were stuck in our homes, feeling quite isolated, so I think that's why people felt a need to have someone that you can speak to, you can get advice from, you can share your ideas with, or get feedback from.”

Ana thinks that reaching out to other people is something that is important post-lockdown as well, and she elaborates on the piece of advice she gave me at the beginning of our conversation.

“In terms of mentoring, I would advise you to get at least one mentoring, but you know you can always have more than one if possible, make sure you look around. It’s true that academics tend to be overworked and really busy, but I think that especially amongst women academics, there is a sense of solidarity. We know that it's really difficult, and women have to work harder than men to have the same kind of promotions, and so on, so I think that there is a sense of trying to support each other and trying to support the next generation. So, don't be shy, just ask someone that you see as a as a role model to mentor you, and that can be done quite informally, it doesn't have to be as part of a formal process.

You can read more about Ana’s work on her staff profile.

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences