Women Adore Tech

A Girl’s Fascination with Flying – Huanran Zhang

Sheryl Sandberg said, “ Women need to shift from thinking I’m not ready to do that, to thinking I want to do that and I’ll learn by doing it ”. This is what Huanran Zhang has set out to achieve. A passionate aerospace engineer from Chongqing, China, she has 2 years of work experience in the aviation industry. After completing her Bachelor’s in Automation, she is currently doing her Master’s in Aerospace engineering with a specialization in aircraft design at ISAE-SUPAERO. Huanran speaks about her journey, and how she persisted despite gender biases and overcame obstacles in her industry.

How would you describe your childhood?

I would dabble in everything I could get my hands on. I used to go rock climbing, play basketball and play with toy guns as well; all of these are considered very masculine hobbies in my community. However, I never bothered about what society had to say and neither did my parents restrict me. My parents spent a lot of time with me when I was young. It was dad who introduced me to Newton’s laws before it was taught in school and he helped me build my first electric toy ship. Also, I would go travelling a lot with my parents and somewhere along the lines, this instilled in me all the courage and confidence that I have today.

How did you choose your bachelor’s and did any of the gender-based norms of the society affect your choice?

Flying has always been fascinating for me. I wanted to study aeronautics. However, the university only accepted applications from male candidates at that time, despite females having similar skills. Thus, I decided to choose to study Automation at the Civil Aviation University of China (CAUC). Luckily, the course that I chose had some classes on aircraft design and production. At the time, it was an unspoken rule that the aeronautical engineering industry mostly accepted men. My teachers, too, encouraged girls to choose safe and stable jobs. However, my family members knew that this is what I liked and they supported me in every way.

What did you choose to do after graduation?

After graduation, I got a job at Hainan Airline Group. However, I could not work as an aircraft maintenance engineer– my work was more in line with Human Resources. The salary was not bad, and it was considered a girl’s dream job – we would be paid similar to male engineers who were responsible for technical tasks. I learned many things in the 6 months that I worked there, but I wasn’t learning anything related to my field like my male peers were. Despite having a good hold over English, an engineering diploma and a qualification in aircraft maintenance which could easily land me a technical job. The management had not considered me at the beginning for such a technical role because of my gender.

Eventually, I approached my manager and got offered another position in the technical services department. Even then, the new role did not allow me to directly participate in maintenance. My role was to cooperate with aircraft manufacturers such as Airbus and keep track of their maintenance manuals and translate them into Chinese, evaluate maintenance work materials and procedures. This job was highly demanding and I was the only woman in my team. I think projects and internships are very essential, as they’ll help you understand what you may want to do in the future with your career. Being as hands-on as possible, whether by building things or by trying out different roles in a project, all significantly improve your skills as an engineer and provide greater clarity about what field is best for you.

Why did you decide to do a master’s in your field?

In my country, one needs practical technical experience to be a certified aircraft maintenance engineer, but I was stuck in the vicious cycle of not being able to gain practical technical experience because being a woman makes it inconvenient for them to schedule their work. After a year, I felt trapped in that role and asked around for opinions. I found out that a Master’s degree would help me bypass this requirement as I would be better qualified. I wanted to pursue a degree related not only to aircraft maintenance but also to production and design. I got to know about ISAE- SUPAERO from my seniors at university and colleagues.

What is your experience as an aerospace student in France?

ISAE was a place where I discovered a better version of myself and the courage to pursue my dreams. The initial days were quite tough. After two years out of school, suddenly I was immersed in a very different culture and environment. The cultural shock, language barriers, and different teaching methods left me stressed and with self-doubt. Fortunately, by studying hard and regulating my emotions, I gradually was able to bridge the gap and adapted to the new learning environment. I am proud of myself for successfully completing my research project (Model-based safety assessment of NASA X-57 referenced powertrain) and finding an internship in Paris.

What were the most challenging moments during your journey?

I found it challenging to stand for myself amid ubiquitous gender stereotypes. I do not understand how sexist the world can be. Society’s and my family’s attitudes toward the fact that I choose to do things outside the box are mixed. Furthermore, choosing a field “for men” will almost probably meet more criticism and hardship than yielding to the ideas of others. But, I trust my inner voice; Virtues such as independence and bravery cannot be solely used for men. I chose this path based on my interests, and I will continue to persevere through the challenges.

It’s my philosophy in life that we only live once; I don’t want to look back on my life with regrets of choosing all the “safe” options. I just want to show that female engineers are as capable as their counterparts

-Huanran Zhang

Content Editor: Dr Rizana Riyaz
Reviewer: Giripriya Pai, Maanasa Sachidanand
Interviewer: Maanasa Sachidanand

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