Be your authentic self all the time. I went through a phase early on where I thought I had to talk about sports (or other common topics that often come up in a room full of men) or act or speak more aggressively to match the posturing in the room. Now I know I have every right to be in that room, regardless of my hobbies or interests, and I’m allowed to express myself verbally in a tone and volume that is natural for me. I feel that the men I work with feel less pressure to masquerade to that “old” standard as well, so it’s better for everyone.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Suzanne Markle, President and CEO of Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics
Suzanne Markle is President and Chief Executive Officer of Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics, overseeing the strategic direction and daily operation of all PIA campuses and programs.
Since joining the organization in 1999, Markle has served in positions including general studies faculty, coordinator for educational development, assistant to the dean, director of alumni services, and director of admissions. From 2010 until her appointment as President/CEO in 2017, she served as PIA’s Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer. Having held such a variety of positions within PIA, Markle enjoys a unique vantage point from which strategic initiatives can be launched with a firm understanding of operational and budgetary capability, regulatory compliance, curriculum design, and the needs of the market and industries served by Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics.
Markle holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Secondary Education from California University of Pennsylvania and a Master of Business Administration degree from Seton Hill University. A native of the Pittsburgh area, Markle serves on the Board of Directors for Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics and the Pennsylvania Association of Private School Administrators. In 2020, she was appointed by the US Department of Transportation to serve on its Women in Aviation Advisory Board (WIABB). She serves as a team leader for the Accrediting Commission for Career Schools and Colleges and is an active member in a host of other business and education associations which support the school’s mission.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Iwish I could tell you that I aspired to a career in aviation or higher education from the beginning, but in fact, I am just lucky to have stumbled into it. My undergraduate degree is in Secondary Education, and there were not many full-time teaching positions available in my local area at the time. I had the chance to work at PIA for what was to be a temporary assignment as a substitute teacher, and I was fortunate to have been offered a teaching position at PIA at the conclusion of that assignment. Over the past 21 years, I’ve had the chance to work in practically every aspect of the organization, and everything I’ve learned about the aviation industry has been from the experiences and opportunities I’ve had with PIA and the great people here.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
There are so many amazing and poignant moments that come to mind, but the one that stands out for me was when PIA was selected as the #1 two-year trade school in the U.S. by Forbes magazine. That recognition brought so much excitement and pride to our whole team and also to the graduates of PIA, knowing that our hard work and dedication to the field of aviation maintenance was acknowledged on a national stage.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Not long after I started, one of my coworkers asked a question that was so ludicrous (in my assessment) that I thought she must be joking, so I laughed heartily in front of another coworker. As it turned out, she was asking a serious question, and I felt terrible about laughing at her! I apologized afterward, but there was no going back. Since then, it’s become incredibly important to me to pause in order to be more thoughtful about my responses.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
PIA stands out as a postsecondary technical school because we focus on each person, whether student or staff member, as an individual. Over the course of the school’s 91-year history, we have developed our employees from within, and I believe that we are very good at identifying talent and fostering each employee’s individual growth and personal career development. The same applies to our students — there are so many differing opportunities available in aircraft maintenance, so many locations throughout the country, that it’s necessary to have good communication with our students to learn their area(s) of greatest interest and talent, and what kind of working environment they desire, so we can assist them in finding the right opportunity for them when they graduate.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
One of the initiatives we’re working on now is the development of a comprehensive records and learning management system for our students. This system will allow our staff to better and more conveniently serve and communicate with our prospective and current students, as well as our graduates. We know that the implementation of these technologies will lead to a more streamlined admissions process, better access to Financial Aid services, and real-time methods for our students to keep on task and on schedule with their assignments. The system also includes the ability for our instructors to provide enhancements to their courses that will help students learn course material and prepare for their FAA certification examinations. For us, it’s all about student outcomes — making sure that our students make the right personal decision to pursue this field, that they are be able to complete the program successfully, and that they find gainful employment to support themselves and their families.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I’m not satisfied at all. There are interesting and lucrative opportunities in STEM, so women should not be underrepresented in these fields. In addition, there are deep labor shortages in the skilled trades, so we need to work harder to communicate these opportunities to young people, along with the educational pathways that will lead them there. Girls often have fewer mentoring experiences early in life and see fewer women role models in science, engineering and technology, so the conversation about the excitement of STEM careers needs to happen in schools at the elementary level. That’s just one small variable in a very complex equation, however, and I hope the WIABB is able to make several specific recommendations which will result in some significant improvements in the numbers of women seeking careers in the aviation field that will also translate to other industries.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
One of the realities for women in many STEM fields is that they are simply outnumbered by their male counterparts. Depending on the individual or circumstances, this can present challenges for women to succeed in a “male centered” work culture, or it can, at the very least, be daunting to women who feel isolated in this type of environment. Having unbalanced representation in a field also results in fewer opportunities for women who are working in STEM fields to act as mentors to young women and girls at key times in their education. So I think that mentoring and introducing women and girls to these fields, both in formal and informal ways, has to come first, and it needs to encouraged, supported, and funded by industry.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
I would hope that there are a lot fewer myths than there used to be regarding women in STEM or women in the trades, at least by people who are in hiring and leadership roles. I don’t think there’s as much of an argument about whether women can be effective and successful in these roles, because now that opportunities are available, women excel in these roles every day. Whatever myths might persist for young women and girls tend to lurk within families, among peers, and in elementary and middle schools. The whole “boys can’t write and girls can’t do math” mythology, along with any other gender-based generalization, needs to die.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Choose the most effective form of communication.
This is determined entirely by your audience. The goal of communication is for the message to be received, so we must begin with our listener or learner in mind.
2. Wear pants.
Skirts and dresses usually have no pockets and I find them completely awkward. Struggling to get in and out of a vehicle or airplane is absolutely unnecessary. I refuse to be slowed down or hampered in any way by my wardrobe.
3. Be your authentic self all the time.
I went through a phase early on where I thought I had to talk about sports (or other common topics that often come up in a room full of men) or act or speak more aggressively to match the posturing in the room. Now I know I have every right to be in that room, regardless of my hobbies or interests, and I’m allowed to express myself verbally in a tone and volume that is natural for me. I feel that the men I work with feel less pressure to masquerade to that “old” standard as well, so it’s better for everyone.
4. Be assertive.
This lesson does not conflict with Lesson 3. I say that because some people equate assertiveness with aggressiveness, and some women who are assertive will be accused of being aggressive, even when they are not. It is important to stand up for yourself and your ideas, and to insist on being heard and understood in the workplace. Anyone who thinks a woman shouldn’t be assertive has no business in my business.
5. Don’t dwell on the past.
Any time spent ruminating on the past is wasted time. What others have done or said, what projects or relationships didn’t work, or what you could have done differently — these are all learning experiences and perhaps interesting stories, but they are not meant to be carried around with us every day. Always focus forward.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Well, I think I’d tell them to read the list of lessons I’ve learned the hard way (laughs)! In addition to those, I would give both female and male leaders the same advice. If you have the right staff, motivation should not be a problem; however, it is possible for you to de-motivate a great group of people by your actions and inactions. To learn these and how to avoid them, listen carefully and observe things that might be taking the wind out of their sails. Also, do your best to be fair, and carry a good portion of the workload. Understand that “fair” is not the same as “equal” — keep in mind that your people need different things to be successful. This, too, requires you to interact often and listen purposefully to your employees. Finally, do your best to recognize your team for their individual and group successes.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
I would hope that by the time a female leader would have a large team reporting to her, she’d have a good grasp on the tenets of effective management, so I’d probably want to stress the importance of information sharing and delegation. Some organizations are really held back by a culture of what I’ll call “knowledge hoarding”, where being the only person to know or carry out a process leads to (real or imagined) job security. This mindset is often hard to break, but it’s very important to encourage and reward communication, transparency, delegation of tasks, and cross training. Aircraft need redundant systems for safety, and so do organizations.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have had the opportunity to meet and work with a lot of great people over the years who have been wonderful mentors, who’ve shared their knowledge and experience, and who’ve given me opportunities to grow. Nobody beats my mom though (laughs). She gave me the most effective tool for success — pure grit. Back when I was growing up, the expectation was for women to do their job as though they didn’t have children and do everything for their children as though they didn’t have a full-time career. She managed to do a great job at both, and I watched her power through each day like a warrior. And I have to say that there have been challenging times in my life and in my career where I believe that I’ve been able to persist because of the grit and determination I learned from my mother.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Wow, I’m sure I have not done enough yet at this point! Up until my appointment to the WIABB, my territory has been furthering PIA’s mission of providing the aviation industry with well-educated and skillful aviation maintenance and electronics technicians. I believe that this work has supported transportation safety in the United States. I look forward to serving on the WIABB, because the aviation industry needs talented people, and women nationwide need to know the opportunities available to them in this amazing industry.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂 I’m still coming to terms with the idea that I’m a person of enormous influence! (laughs) My success has been so incremental over the last couple of decades, that I sometimes fail to realize what has taken place. But I think that same concept of incremental accumulation may apply to bringing goodness to the world. Can you imagine if each person would say ONE GOOD THING to at least one other person each day, what the impact would be over time? I’m not talking about our own families or friends, but instead about strangers, business associates, customers and coworkers. These words stay with us, and positively influence our interaction with others for the rest of the day. So, it’s cheesy and not very original, but if it happened, it would absolutely make a positive impact on the decisions that drive our world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The quote that resonates with me the most is from Sam Ewing: “Hard work spotlights the character of people. Some turn up their sleeves, some turn up their noses, and some don’t turn up at all.” I define myself as a person who rolls up her sleeves, who goes all in and gets things done, and I hold myself accountable to that. I also endeavor to model that behavior with my team, as I project those same expectations onto them. No matter what, I keep going, keep helping, keep listening, keep learning, and keep caring.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I would love to sit down with President Trump and talk with him about the skills gap in our workforce and how we can eliminate it through changes in our education system and industry partnerships.