Here at Volocopter we have women working across all echelons, from women engineers and office management officers to aircraft builders and policymakers. What we don’t have, however, is many women like Barbara. A woman who has studied aerospace engineering and law – at the same time, no less! – and is now putting her diverse skill set to good use as we forge ahead in our quest to bring urban air mobility to life. We spoke to Regulations & Standards Analyst Barbara about how (and why) she took on this doubly demanding task, how she ultimately used it to land her current role, and why she believes Volocopter careers are ones more women should be aiming for.
Barbara, can you briefly summarize your role at Volocopter?
Sure. In a nutshell, I help to develop new aviation laws and regulations for the up-and-coming urban air mobility (UAM) offering that we’re championing. Essentially, the Policy & Regulatory Affairs team lays the groundwork for Volocopter to enter the market by 2024. In practice, this sees us working closely with many of our teams and collaborating with various regulators and policymakers to merge existing and new aviation laws and regulations. And we do it all to create a framework for this new form of mobility.
Another aspect of my work is to harmonize the different individual regulations worldwide, to the greatest possible extent. After all, the USA, Asia, and Europe (fronted by EASA, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency) are all concurrently working on developing the standards that will enable UAM. And since aviation has involved crossing national frontiers since the beginning, it’s always been crucial that all regulators achieve harmonization. This remains key for UAM, too. Ultimately, we don’t want to lock ourselves out of any market. After all, diverging requirements in different regions of the world could hinder aspects like type certification, prevent pilots’ licenses being recognized, or negatively impact supply chain efficiency. For the time being we are focusing on domestic flights, but we want to keep the playing field as open as possible (especially with our cross-border aspirations in Singapore).
Barbara, you came into aviation via a somewhat unorthodox route. Can you tell us more about that?
Yes, you could say my story was a little unusual. But I have always been very driven by my passions. So, when the time came for me to go to university, I found myself at a bit of an impasse: there were several disciplines I was interested in studying. Ultimately, though, I chose to pursue a degree in law. (pauses) And then, a year later, to add another one in aerospace engineering, “on the side.” I don’t say that lightly, I really had to be creative with scheduling and ensure I was organized enough to fit all the lectures into my day – which meant proactively putting in the hours in the evenings, too.
During my studies, I got an internship at the Commission on Passengers’ Rights (Polish Civil Aviation Authority). I followed this up with another internship in the Maintenance division of a private jet airline based in Poland. This would prove to be a great litmus test for my future career, in part because it made me realize that I was in fact more passionate about the regulatory side of aviation. I guess it also made my experience unique: normally people decide to pursue a career in either law or engineering. But I was passionate about both, and I didn’t want to drop either. In hindsight that was a wise decision because now I really do have the best of both worlds at Volocopter.
Was it the internship that made you want to focus on aviation over other fields of law?
In part, yes. However, the reason I even started to consider aviation was also due to my summer stint as a flight attendant, a student job I happened upon through a friend. For a total of 7 months throughout 2 seasons I traveled around Europe at all hours of the day and night, meeting passionate pilots and cabin crew along the way. Yes, at times it was a very physically demanding job requiring early-morning wake-up calls. But at the same time, it was a steep learning curve that gave so much back! It was my first real hands-on experience in aviation, and the field excited me a lot. My interest in aviation law definitely stems from this experience, while my subsequent pivot to unmanned aviation law was one of the keys that opened the door to my current role at Volocopter. It’s so exciting to work in a branch of law that we are all helping to create from scratch! I’d previously worked for a UTM (unmanned traffic management) company, closely monitoring airspace integration developments in Europe.
And then there was EASA, whose graduate program was a hugely important stepping stone for me. I initially joined a female manager-led team working on UAS (unmanned aircraft system) regulations for all categories of drones, and for UAM companies like Volocopter. So, my decision to accept a role at Volocopter, the pioneer of this new form of mobility, was a logical next step. I joined two years ago and I’m still loving my work today.
In your experience, do you feel that more women are finding paths into aviation? Are we seeing more female representation in top management positions?
Well, I look at this question from two perspectives: through my law- and my engineering-tinted glasses. Aviation law is very balanced in terms of gender – my master thesis professor at university was a woman, and many female students are entering the field as well.
Engineering, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish altogether. In my classes one in four students were female. But this was also the case for other technical fields, with some being much more male-dominated than aerospace engineering.
Nevertheless, I’ve definitely seen a change in the aviation industry as far as gender roles are concerned, and I hope to see more women in top management positions flourishing across the industry.
Do you feel you’ve had to work harder than your male counterparts to advance your career?
Honestly, my colleagues and I all work equally hard to achieve all we can for the emerging UAM industry, regardless of gender. Here at Volocopter, everyone is treated the same and according to the results they produce, not their gender. For instance, even though I’m the only woman working on Volocopter’s Policy & Regulatory Affairs team, it’s not a problem for me as we all work extremely well together. And that’s the way it should be.
However, when it comes to pursuing a career in aviation, I’d still say it’s somewhat tougher for women to get a foot in the door. When you look at the industry as a whole, I wouldn’t say we’re there yet from a diversity perspective. You can see that just by going to an aviation conference, exhibition, or event. The same is true at universities, where there are still far fewer women studying aerospace engineering compared to men. However, change is rarely something that happens overnight. Then again, I do believe things are looking up and that we will gradually start seeing more and more women filling top positions.
Does that mean you’ve drawn inspiration from other women in the industry? Has there been anyone in your career thus far who you’d consider a role model?
During my stint at EASA there were two female mangers in my department – and they continue to inspire me today. I feel fortunate to have encountered such strong female role models along my journey. It was hugely motivating to see women doing what I wanted to do, and I found them all to be incredibly supportive of my goals.
What would you say was the best advice you’ve ever received?
One of my mentors at EASA kept saying to me, “Barbara, don’t worry because you don’t know something. We’re ALL learning. Just stay confident and keep learning.” That has stuck with me to this day, and it’s a mantra I repeat to myself. It really does help me so much.
In a similar vein, what advice would you give to young women looking to join the industry?
In short, just do it! I am a firm believer in working toward your goals. I’d tell them not to shy away or think they’re not good enough, or that aviation is an industry for men. Play to your strengths and stay focused. A bit of creativity is also sometimes needed to achieve your goals. By that I mean, if one idea doesn’t pan out, change tack and go down a different path – just don’t lose sight of your goals. Take every step to help you get there.
And do you feel Volocopter is helping you to achieve your goals? Do you enjoy working here?
At this point I can’t imagine working anywhere else. This is definitely the industry for me: developing new regulations, coupled with the great international ambience with so many colleagues from across the globe – I’ve not seen such cultural diversity at many companies, and it definitely adds color to my working life!
Thanks so much for sharing your unique journey with us, Barbara!