SFO's Joanne Borg
The year was 1986, and Engine Overhaul and Repair Senior Manager Joanne Borg, then a newly licensed aircraft maintenance technician (AMT), was reporting for her first day at the San Francisco Line Maintenance hangar. It was an era when the sight of a woman out on the line was a conspicuous one, but Joanne didn't think much of it as she headed into the locker room to get ready for her shift. Then something stopped her cold in her tracks.
"It was eerie," Joanne said. "There were probably 100 guys on my crew, but I was the only woman. Being in that locker room by myself was just so quiet and so lonely."
While pursuing her Airframe and Powerplant license, there had been subtle things that separated Joanne from the men, but none as poignant as that empty locker room. The feeling of isolation was hard to shake.
Joanne had gotten her start with United as a seamstress in the San Francisco Maintenance Base upholstery shop in 1976, where she would watch the mechanics who worked alongside her on the shop floor and think to herself that she'd like to try what they were doing. In 1984, she decided to make a move. For the next two years, Joanne worked swing shift as a cabin mechanic and took aircraft maintenance classes in the daytime, all while she and her husband raised two young kids. Earning her license meant better pay and a good future, but it also meant having to grow thick skin.
"I never really had a problem with the guys when I became a mechanic," she said, "But some of the supervisors would give the women the hardest jobs. I think they were trying find our breaking point. My husband is the one who told me, 'Don't let them break you.' He kept me going when it got tough."
From what Joanne can remember, the ratio of women to men in Tech Ops when she started was around 1 to 70. For the most part everyone got along well, but there were times when the ribbing the women received from some of their male colleagues took its toll. In those moments, the female employees banded together to look out for one another.
"We had a rule that said there's no crying in front of the guys," said Joanne. "When the men gave us a hard time, we would give each other a look that said, 'Don't let them see you cry.' You'd go off by yourself and let it out, then get back to work."
In the years since, Joanne said things have gotten "a hundred times better," and she gives all the credit to current Tech Ops leadership for helping usher in that change.
"At one point, I had given up on ever being promoted," she said. "I saw the writing on the wall – there were people who didn't have much respect for women in this job. With the leaders we have now, I'm able to show what I can do. I feel respected, and I have so much respect for them because of it."
There are now concerted efforts to attract more women to Tech Ops, and steps are being taken to address pay gaps between women and men in the industry. Joanne hopes that her accomplishments – like becoming the first female Operating Manager of Engine Overhaul at United – helped contribute to that sea change, and she hopes that when people see her it reframes their perceptions of what an AMT looks like.
"There are a lot of women technicians out there, maybe twice as many as when I started," said Joanne. "You'll find females on every shift. If you can do the job, it shouldn't matter. I've put my whole heart into what I do, and I tell other women that if this is their dream, stick with it. Sometimes the road is bumpy, but if you really want to do it, you can."