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In Profile: Sarah Duncan

Despite growing up around a father who was a full-time electrician and a keen pilot, Sarah never dreamt she’d be carving out a successful career as an aviation electrician. After working at Canberra Airport for more than nine years, Sarah is loving the role and the challenges it brings. There are still many more men than females in this field of work and Sarah hopes for more diversity in the future.

How did you get your start in the airport sector?
Hairdressing was my first choice of career, but I was struggling to find an apprenticeship. My father, who is an electrician, offered me work as a trades assistant for him while he was understaffed. After 12 months of working on the tools on big building sites I really loved the work and was also naturally rather good at it. So, I signed up to do my electrical apprenticeship instead. I didn’t even know aviation electricians existed until the electrical contractor I was working for won the tender for the airport’s main runway extension and overlay in 2006. After working on that job for 12 months I knew this was it for me, I absolutely loved it! In 2010, Canberra Airport expanded the airside services team and I was successful in becoming a permanent member of staff.

What is an average day like in your role?
There is no such thing as an average day, and I can be working in several different roles. This includes working on the airfield lighting systems, completing technical service inspection records, working with those in the office or CASA, line marking, driving machinery for earth moving works, and being the works safety officer. Here at Canberra Airport our team are very diverse, and we will give just about anything a go. We do whatever we can to help, when we can.

What are your long-term career plans?
My long-term career plan is to become an Airside Services Team Leader. I would also love to be an advocate or mentor for women already in the industry or those who want to join the industry. It would be great seeing more female tradies in the world.

What are the challenges you face in your role?
Honestly, one challenge is being a woman. This industry is still very male dominated. Things have indeed come a very long way since I first started in 2003 and Canberra Airport is fantastic at encouraging diversity and equality. However, there is still a certain minority that don’t take women seriously, or they think we are not good enough or smart enough, or capable, that the thought of asking a woman for advice or help is a no go zone. It’s important that we don’t allow it to get to us. The second challenge is knowing that unless something is done to start bringing in people to train them up for aviation specific electrical, and this is for the whole of Australia, we will be a dying breed and the knowledge and experience will go with us.

What do you like most about your role?
That it’s not the same thing day in day out. I’m very versatile and it comes in handy.

Are people surprised when you tell them what you do for work?
Absolutely! Surprised and sometimes excited. I also have a lot of women ask if I am available after hours because they honestly feel more comfortable having a female trades-person doing the work in their home.

What are some patterns you’ve noticed over the years about women at work, and things they could be doing better to advance their careers?
Women can tend to sell themselves short in a male dominated sector and there can be self-doubt, thinking that a man is better suited to the job. Sometimes they refrain from speaking up when they absolutely should be speaking up. I used to do it a lot when I first started out, and still do sometimes. During my apprenticeship there were only two other women on my electrician course. Neither completed the course and it wasn’t because of the TAFE, nor the work, it was because of the way they were being treated in their chosen career path. I would be lying if I said I never felt like quitting the course, I felt like quitting a lot at times. But thankfully I didn’t, and I am now one of the most work proud, efficient, clean and tidy electricians out there.

Any other advice or thoughts to share?
Be the change, be the revolution. It’s 2019, not the 1800-1900s anymore.

Have you had any good mentors in your life? Who inspires you?
In my career there are two people who have been great mentors — Grahame Hamilton and Rob Maiden. I did my apprenticeship with Grahame, and Rob also really helped me transition very well into the aviation electrical world. Both have mentored me immensely at different stages in my life. These men take great pride in their work, are very knowledgeable and efficient.

This article was written for the Australian Airport Association’s Women in Airports Network – an online community to support the advancement of women across all aspects of airport operations.

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