Europe has an increasingly ageing workforce and will experience an on-going reduction in its working age population (ILO, 2016). In parallel, we are witnessing a shortage of skills in some economically critical industries, especially engineering, which could be addressed through the recruitment and retention of more women (Munn, 2014). Women comprise just over 8% of engineers in the UK, which compares poorly to other EU countries, such as Latvia (30%) and Sweden (26%). The aviation and aerospace industry in the UK is male dominated; women make up just under 10% of engineers and 4% of pilots. One issue women face in this industry and male dominated industries generally, is a lack of support and progression.
To address this, the alta mentoring scheme was developed ‘for women/by women’ for business and social justice reasons. This involved a number of ‘critical actors’ (Childs and Krook, 2009) from public and private sector organisations in the aviation and aerospace industry and an academic team. The aim of this collaboration was to bring about positive change by promoting gender equality, through mentoring, and to build a critical mass of women (Kanter, 1977; Torchia et al. 2011) who could support one another. The paper will discuss the theoretical foundations of ‘critical actors’ and ‘critical mass’ and argue, through the use of empirical data, that these can be usefully integrated (with the former driving the latter) to achieve gender equality through the formation of feminist activist solidarities (Cockburn, 1991; Walby, 2011).