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Mind the gender gap - how these Northern Ireland women are driving change

Whether it's flying a plane, navigating a ferry across the Irish Sea or driving a train, these female high flyers reveal how they are on track to disprove outdated female stereotypes

By Stephanie Bell

Published 23/05/2016

Taking off: Judith Watt, Flybe Q400 captain, at Belfast City Airport
Taking off: Judith Watt, Flybe Q400 captain, at Belfast City Airport
Setting sail: P&O second officer Samantha Tait

Northern Ireland travellers - by rail, boat and plane - can rest easy on their journey with this team of exceptional women at the helm.

Steering a successful course in careers which even today remain very much a male domain are P&O second officer Samantha Tait, Flybe Airline captain Judith Watt and Translink train driver Vicky Osborne.

Not so long ago it would have been a boys-only dream to grow up to become a train driver, pilot or ship's captain which makes the achievement of our three female high flyers even more remarkable.

And while all three women have worked hard to fulfil their ambitions they confess that, even in 2016, passengers are still surprised to see a woman in the hot seat.

Now, though, women are more likely to be at the wheel - however you travel.

We talk to three women who are proof that females are now driving out old ideas.

The ferry navigator:

At just 21, P&O second officer Samantha Tait is responsible for navigating some of our biggest passenger ferries across the Irish Sea between Larne and Cairnryan.

It is a role which is just two steps away from captain and which has taken years of study and thousands of pounds to achieve.

As a cadet in training she spent a lot of time in Northern Ireland and is now thrilled to be part of the team taking travellers from here safely to Scotland and back.

Home for Samantha is Southampton and even though she grew up in a coastal town she says her family didn’t sail.

It was only when her older sister pursued it as a career that she too decided to come on board and join the rising tide of women ferry officers.

It takes three and a half years of funded learning and specialist training at sea and on shore to qualify for the job.

And the very first challenge is to persuade a company to invest in your future.

Samantha was lucky after A-levels to secure sponsorship from P&O which funded her £50,000 college fees and provided ongoing training and support while she studied for her second officer qualification.

She spent three and a half years studying at Warsash Maritime Academy in England qualifying in December 2014 as an officer of the watch — which now allows her to navigate any ship in the world.

“It is such an expensive training course that you can only really do it if you get the backing of a company, so I was really fortunate that P&O sponsored me otherwise I couldn’t have done it,” she says.

“They also give you experience during the course on their ships and I spent a lot of time in Larne and was able to go out in Belfast at the weekends. And I just loved it.

“There were 30 people in my class doing the same qualification. It’s not easy and only 50% of people finish the course as many drop out.

“As second officer it is my job to navigate the ship.

“The captain takes the vessel out of the berth and out to sea, then I navigate across the sea. At the end of the journey the captain comes back up to the bridge and puts the ship back into the berth again.

“Obviously safety is a high priority and we are constantly on the look-out at sea for other ships.”

Samantha is second officer on P&O’s famous “shortest fastest crossing” between Larne and Cairnryan which operates the shortest possible sea route to the UK with up to seven sailings a day — more than any other route across the Irish Sea.

She spends two weeks living on the ship and has two weeks at home. She says staff have everything they need on board including their own TV lounge, gym and canteen.

It is a male-dominated environment, though, and in her crew of  12 there are only three female officers.

“It is still uncommon for women to be part of the crew and it is definitely a surprise for visitors who come up to the bridge to see a woman there,” she says.

“At college only 10% of students were women — but it isn’t an issue and my male colleagues don’t have a problem with it at all.”

Sea sickness was initially a hazard of the job which fortunately she very quickly learnt to deal with.

“It was absolutely horrendous and for the first three days I was so sick and it was horrible — and I did ask myself what on earth was I doing with my life,” she says.

“I stuck it out and once I realised it is all in the head I have been fine ever since.

“My first ever time navigating the ship was just amazing.

“It was such an incredible feeling to know you are in charge of the ship and for me all the hard work had paid off.”

Fiercely ambitious Samantha is determined to go all the way to the top and now plans to go back to college to study for her master qualifications and then her captain’s certificate.

The airline pilot:

Judith Watt (37) from Belfast has a five-year-old daughter and is a Flybe Q400 Captain at George Best Belfast City Airport.

As a child, Judith grew up moving to different towns in Northern Ireland because of her dad’s job in Ulsterbus.

And she was just five when she decided she wanted to be a pilot: “As a small child, I was on a flight to Majorca and was allowed in to visit the pilots in the flight deck during the trip.

“Apparently I asked so many questions the captain allowed me to stay in the flight deck on the jump seat for the landing. I got off the aeroplane telling my mum I was going to be a pilot when I grew up.”

She took her first flying lesson in 1996, achieved her commercial licence in December 2004, and starting work with Flybe in February 2006, at the age of 27.

Judith also studied for a degree in management at Brunel University before going on to do flight training in Madrid at a cost of £60,000 back in 2003.

Initially, she completed a private pilot’s licence in Florida, but it restricted how much she could fly and, fortunately, her parents agreed to support her financially to apply for an integrated course.

“An integrated course involves actual flight training up to a commercial level; learning the principles of flight, how to communicate with Air Traffic Control, how to deal with emergency situations when in flight,” she says. “There were 14 written exams and some simulator training. I completed my integrated course at a flying school called Aero Madrid, in the south of Madrid, Spain. It took about 21 months from the start until my licence was issued.”

She joined Flybe as a first officer on the Dash 8 Q400 in July 2007, moved to the Embraer 195 jet and, in 2010, was promoted to captain on the Dash 8 Q400.

As a single mum she works a part-time roster, which involves a fixed schedule of five days on and five days off, piloting between two and six flights a day, mostly on the regional domestic route, covering destinations between Inverness and Southampton.

She says: “There is no such thing as a typical week in aviation. From Belfast we tend to work an early shift, starting around 6am and finishing about 1.30pm, or a late shift starting around 1pm and finishing about 10pm.

“We have lots of first officers and cabin crew based at Belfast City airport, so almost every day is with different crew members. The Belfast base is like a big extended family and we always plan to have a ‘good day out’.”

The fact that she is a female in what has long been traditionally a male role has never been an issue for Judith, who adds: “We are all a team and I am treated as an equal by all the crew members, male and female. Within the industry, your gender isn’t even mentioned.

“People outside of the airline industry do find it very strange that I fly planes and even more so if I tell them I’m a captain.

“The reaction from the passengers when there are two female drivers is often quite funny. As a woman I feel very much an equal and I’m treated very well by my colleagues.” 

And when it comes to safety on board and dealing with people who are frightened of flying, she is keen to reassure her more nervous passengers.

“Usually when someone tells me they are afraid of flying, I ask if there is a particular phase that scares them the most and try to explain in layman’s terms what is going on up in the flight deck, then explain why we do what we do,” she says.

“For some people it is fear of the unknown, wondering what we are doing.

“I am always happy to spend time talking people through the processes and noises that are experienced when flying. I have flown over 5,500 hours and still love every time I get to sit in the seat at the flight deck.”

The train driver:

Vicky Osborne (34) from Bangor has been a train driver with Translink for 18 months, having previously worked as a conductor for seven years.

She met her husband John (40), a conductor, through work and they have one son, Jude (3).

Vicky worked in customer service roles for numerous companies before starting a new career with Northern Ireland Railways in 2007.

She became a conductor and decided that the best way to climb the career ladder was to train as a driver. Determined not to be put off she was successful on her third attempt at applying.

She had to go through intensive training for a year, taking train driving lessons and also spending five months in a classroom.

“I didn’t grow up wanting to be a train driver, it has just happened and I love the job,” she says.

“I thought it would be a step up in my career and I would have a bit more control. It’s a bit like having your own office although it moves around.

“I trained for five months in a classroom where we had a simulator train cab.

“Then you have to do six months of lessons with an instructor and we had four theory tests and a full week of exams.”

Based in Great Victoria Street Station she works on all of the lines in Northern Ireland so that no two days are the same.

She is one of only seven female train drivers out of a total team of 175 and says that people do find it a surprise to see a woman at the controls.

“Most people give me a positive reaction and older people usually say ‘good for you’,” she says.

“In some ways I think a neutral reaction would be better because then they are looking at the individual and not the gender.

“Female numbers are still low but the opportunities are there and I would encourage women to go for it — even in engineering there are great opportunities.

“There is no reason why a woman shouldn’t be doing something that men usually do — it should be up to the individual.” Safety is paramount and having the welfare of her passengers in her hands is a challenge of the job which Vicky loves.

“It is my job to keep them safe and to some extent that means I am still involved in customer service which is great,” she says.

“Luckily enough I have had no major emergencies.

“The scariest thing for a driver is having trespassers on the line as it is not like putting your foot on the brake of a car — it can take a train up to half a mile to stop.

“Losing the line is another fear and so coming into the autumn when the leaves are falling you have to be really on the ball to control your train and that can be mentally exhausting.”

Belfast Telegraph

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