BY BENJAMIN FANG
In March 2015, LaGuardia Airport General Manager Lysa Scully began hosting an annual event recognizing Women’s History Month.
The event honored the “extensive female leadership base” at the airport, including the heads of American Airlines and Delta, the president of Vaughn College and others on the finance, business and commercial development side.
It also brought together younger female employees, like Michele Delgado, assistant manager of airport maintenance, and Madeline Arango, supervisor of airport transportation services, to connect with industry veterans.
Scully hoped that the women would share their stories and their challenges to inspire each other. Despite the success of the annual events, she knew there was more to be done.
“Each year, I kind of felt a little empty afterward,” Scully said. “There’s so much more that we could do rather than wait for a once-a-year-event.”
Last spring, the general manager met with Delgado and Arango, and started discussions about starting a female empowerment group for LaGuardia Airport. That idea eventually became Women Empowering Other Women (WOW), a support forum for women in aviation.
WOW, now more than 50 members strong, encompasses not just aviation operation professionals, but those who work in engineering, finance and other fields at LaGuardia. They meet regularly to share their successes and obstacles, but also give back to the local community.
Since June, Delgado and Arango have been developing the agendas for monthly forums. Delgado said an example of what they’ve discussed so far is opportunities for professional development through conferences and webinars. They plan to meet as a group for an upcoming webinar on “women embracing high ceilings.”
According to Arango, the group has also organized events and drives to benefit the local community. Over the holiday season, they collected nearly 50 coats that were donated to the King’s Inn, a temporary family homeless shelter in East Elmhurst.
WOW also hosted a toy giveaway for Our Lady of Fatima School, which is also near LaGuardia Airport. Arango said they learned that the Catholic school also has a girls development group, and is interested in partnering with WOW moving forward.
LaGuardia Airport already has a strong partnership with Vaughn College, according to Scully, who serves on the board of the East Elmhurst school.
By connecting with local schools and talking to young women about careers in science, engineering, math and art, WOW is strengthening the entire pipeline in the neighborhood. “2019 will be the year that we flourish and do a diversity of things,” Arango said.
In February or March, WOW will host industry trailblazer Jane Garvey, the first female chairwoman of United Continental Holdings and a former administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Garvey is also the North America chairwoman of Meridiam Infrastructure, a global investor and asset management company.
Garvey is among 18 transportation leaders to share their stories in the book “Boots on the Ground, Flats in the Boardroom,” which was written in 2015. Scully said WOW purchased a copy for every member.
“We’re going to essentially do a book reading with her,” she said, “and talk about the book and her experiences.”
Moving forward, the group will also help Scully plan the annual Women’s History Month event in March, Arango said. They will also be involved in volunteer opportunities like Earth Day and Kiwanis Kids Day.
Scully’s personal goal in spearheading this effort is to keep young female employees engaged and supported, so they stay in the industry. Though there are many other professional forums for employees, most are focused solely on learning the technical aspect of the job.
“It’s a tough business,” she said. “Keeping really stellar young ladies engaged and interested is important.”
Even Delgado and Arango have faced their share of challenges. Delgado moved from airport operations to maintenance, a role dominated by men. Out of 85 staff members, only seven are women.
That means whenever she walks into a meeting, she’s almost always the only woman in the room, which can be daunting.
“But it also makes you work harder and know your stuff when you go into a meeting, and own it,” she said. “Take on the challenge and just do it even better.”
Many of the meetings Arango has with the operations teams are with engineers, who are often technical in their viewpoints. But Arango brings a different aspect to the conversation by remembering to think of the customer experience, like how families get around in the airport or having accessible restrooms.
“I think our voices are really valuable in that planning process,” she said.
The challenges rise all the way to the upper management and senior levels, areas Scully said are still “quite lacking” when it comes to gender parity. She noted that it takes a long time to become a senior executive in any industry.
However, over her 30 years in the industry, Scully has seen the window of opportunity expand.
“It’s not even a window anymore, it’s the whole side of the building open for young female professionals to move and grow in the business,” she said. “Some of the hurdles that my predecessors may have faced, I didn’t face coming into it.”
The LaGuardia general manager said she’s hopeful about the future because so many women are choosing aviation as a career path. She encourages women to be more willing to take risks and opportunities.
For example, Scully has seen throughout her career that men are often more successful at putting themselves out and taking a chance on a job that they may not be fully prepared for.
She’s noticed that women tend to want to be 150 percent prepared for jobs they apply for, often resulting in years lost waiting for that preparation.
“I think that’s changing,” Scully said. “I think ladies here are risk takers, they’re willing to stretch themselves much more than when I started 30 years ago.
“The pendulum has definitely swung in the right direction,” she added. “I think we’re going to get there in another decade, or maybe sooner.”