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It Takes Deliberate Action to Provoke Any Measurable Change: A Conversation with Kathy Elliott of Rolls-Royce

Posted: Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Continuing our celebration of Women’s History Month, we spoke with Kathryn Elliott, a Global Lead SME at Rolls-Royce, for a conversation on the importance of female representation, mentoring, and why her path is just one of many that women can follow in the aerospace industry. Kathryn is a dedicated supporter of SAE, serving as the Chair of the SAE E-32 Aerospace Propulsion System Health Management committee and offering her career insights as a contributor in our “Flight Paths to Success: Career Insights from Women Leaders in Aerospace” book. 

What was your first job and who was your most impactful mentor?
My first job was the drive-thru at a fast food restaurant in high school where I worked the breakfast and lunch shift.  There were many regulars that came and frequently ordered the same thing.  In a few weeks’ time, they knew that I would see their car pull in the drive and get their order ready so they could skip the squawk box and drive right up to the window to pay and collect their order.  I learned I loved efficiency and that delighting the customer was a win for everyone!  My most impactful mentor was at my second job.  When I began college, my on-campus job was working as the Engineering Department secretary, which I did for three years.  I worked for my professors!  The Department Chair, Dr. Jim Bosscher, was very supportive of me.  I was the only girl in my engineering class and he had a way of showing that support without being patronizing or making me feel odd.  He had such full and positive confidence in me that it built up my confidence especially in the earlier collegiate years.  He is a large reason for me sticking with it until I ‘owned’ it. He constantly told me to “act like you know what you’re doing, because you do!”  I’ve thought of his words of advice often throughout my career and his confidence carried me through a lot of challenging times.  

What was the “aha moment” that inspired you to get into to the aerospace industry?
During my college years, I majored in Mechanical Engineering because it was a gateway to many other specialties, and I hadn’t decided what I wanted to do yet.  As I progressed through school, I discovered I loved Thermodynamics and power generation, so my electives started narrowing into that direction.  When I finally discovered gas turbine engines, it was love at first sight and I’ve never looked back.  I started out as a Compressor Aero designer, designing turbomachinery aerodynamics and eventually progressed to Propulsion System Performance which is where I’ve spent the majority of my career. No regrets, still love it, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Why was it important for you to share your story in Flight Paths to Success?
I believe that visible role models are vitally important – “if you see it, you can be it” is very powerful.  I had no idea what engineering was when I was in high school and I knew exactly zero women engineers.  What really drove my passion for this project was the realization that after 35 years in aerospace engineering, I am STILL the only woman in the room on a very regular basis.  I have never reported directly to a woman and have only ever had two women anywhere in my management chain. The idea that natural evolution with new generations would change the picture is completely false.  It takes deliberate action to provoke any measurable change and so it’s my hope that this book will help paint an inspiring picture for young women.  I want to encourage them to seriously consider aerospace as a career since I have enjoyed it so much.  I also want to share my story as one of many possible paths to success in aerospace, encouraging women to define their own success and craft their own stories.  It is also my hope that men will read this book and gain a better understanding of women’s experiences in aerospace and how fundamentally different they are from their own.  Ideally that realization will inspire them to encourage young women as well.