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Does gender continue to hold women back in the Aviation industry?

Gender diversity continues to be a hot topic and in the aviation industry, it’s a big problem.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents 290 airlines, the number of women in C-level executive positions within the industry is just three percent. For some businesses increasing gender diversity is a matter of regulatory compliance or corporate social responsibility, while for others, it is seen as creating an advantage over competitors. However, the aviation industry continues to have one of the poorest gender balances across a wide range of industries, and it is particularly apparent at the leadership level.

What are the main barriers to women’s advancement in the industry? How can those challenges be overcome? What role can executive search firms play in assisting companies who are actively looking to improve diversity? To answer those questions, we interviewed women in C-level executive positions at leading aviation organisations to get their views on barriers that must be eliminated to improve the representation of women in the aviation industry.

Battling Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias, unsupported and often harmful stereotypes, serves as a barrier to women in the aviation industry. Harmful gender stereotypes can have a major impact on the career trajectory of women. For example, “caring” and “empathetic” are adjectives typically ascribed to women, while “competitive,” “confident,” and “assertive” are often ascribed to men. When female leaders exhibit the latter characteristics, they are often subject to criticism or are labelled as overly aggressive. This makes it challenging for women to navigate societal expectations in the workplace. Christine Ourmieres-Widener, ex-CEO of Flybe, who started her career as a technical specialist, believes that many of the old-fashioned assumptions about women still go unchallenged in the aviation industry today.

Carol Anderson, General Counsel at Gulf Air, and former long-time board member to the International Aviation Women’s Association (IAWA), commented: “Although girls work very hard at school and university and achieve great results often outperforming their male counterparts, that initial advantage seems to disappear the moment they graduate into their professional careers, especially in the male-dominated world of aviation”. Anderson believes that this can be linked to a lack of proper career guidance and existing intrinsic biases in professional environments.

Lack of Female Role Models

Another major challenge for women is the distinct lack of female role models at the highest corporate levels in avation. Both Anderson and Oumieres-Widener agree that coaching and mentoring are important tools, particularly for women struggling to advance up the corporate ladder. Support and career guidance at the right time in a woman’s career can be the difference between aspiring female leaders giving up and staying the course.

In a bid to encourage young women to become pilots and engineers, Ourmieres-Widener initiated Flybe’s “FlyShe” campaign, which addresses gender imbalance in the aviation industry, and seeks to inspire the next generation of female aviators. Anne Hustinx, General Counsel & Company Secretary at the Schiphol Group, who rapidly rose through the ranks of international law firms, thinks that gender does matter when choosing a mentor because “only women can understand what other women, during that critical life stage between 30 and 40, are going through. Most women decide to have children between 30 and 40 which also happen to be the critical years when you have to prove to your employer that you are capable and worthy of a leadership position”.

Overcoming Barriers and Actively Promoting Yourself

To effectively position themselves for senior roles, women should adopt the practice of self-promotion. Even if they may not feel completely prepared, aspiring female leaders should self-promote by putting themselves forward for challenging new roles. “You don’t always have to wait until you are 100% ready for the next role up, you can stretch yourself,” Ourmieres-Widener advised.

1. Advocate for Yourself

While women tend to be great at advocating on behalf of their business, they do not advocate as efficiently for themselves. The female leaders we interviewed all agreed—identifying career goals and desired compensation need to be effectively communicated.

The female leaders we interviewed attributed their success to proactively managing their careers. By advocating for yourself, you will prompt others to advocate for you when relevant opportunities arise. Communicating the value that you bring to your organisation and actively advocating for yourself is critical to facilitate your career advancement in a male dominated industry.

2. Build an Internal & External Network

It is important for women to build a personal network of advisers both within and outside of their own organisation. Taking advantage of formal gender diversity programs within your own organisation and joining a non-profit board can also significantly increase your number of contacts and advisors. There are several associations that promote the advancement of women in the aviation and aerospace industries. IAWA (the International Aviation Women’s Association) is one such organization that has been operating for more than 30 years and runs events around the globe as well as regional and annual conferences (www.iawa.org). Others include Women in Aviation, which has regional and country-specific chapters, and the “Ninety-Nines,” a female pilot association with regional chapters that promotes flying careers to young women.

Additionally, the Royal Aeronautical Society’s (RAeS) Women in Aviation & Aerospace Committee (WAAC), established in 2009, encourages young women to consider aviation and aerospace as a career path. The RAeS & WAAC recently launched the Alta Mentoring Scheme which connects female mentors to mentees seeking support in specific career or personal areas (such as maternity leave, career breaks or work-life balance). Female mentees are also able to identify and choose a mentor with the suitable experience for their career development needs.

Building a More Inclusive Culture

1. Drive Gender Diversity from the Top Down

In Ourmieres-Widener’s view, improving diversity “must involve a cultural change at the highest corporate levels”. She emphasized that a company’s board must be an outspoken advocate for diversity. Real change can only take place when all of leadership is on board and realises that they cannot effectively execute their company strategy without diversity.

In the Netherlands, companies are required by law to have a certain percentage of women on their boards. At the Schiphol Group, leadership is strives to promote women across the entire organisation. Hustinx notes that “Schiphol Group’s senior leaders are proactive about gender diversity, not only from top-down but they engage everyone across the business at all levels”.

2. Support Women

It is essential that companies provide adequate support for their newly appointed female leaders. Companies should also have a focused onboarding plan in place to support new hires as they begin their careers. It is crucial that companies identify and assign mentors within an organization to assist women at all stages of their careers.

3. Flexibility

Companies should strive to create policies that permit flexibility for employees with respect to how and where work is performed. Adapting a more flexible mindset benefits both male and female employees.

4. Accountability

Holding the organisation and individual leaders accountable for gender targets can be a powerful tool for change. Ourmieres-Widener stated, “if you want to change, you have to define what diversity would look like, and you have to define how you will achieve it, what are the resources and projects you want to launch to deliver it”. The more specific the roadmap is, the more likely diversity targets will be met.

The Role of Executive Search Firms

Organisations should strive for a process that produces a diverse range of candidates, particularly when it comes to recruiting female talent.

Companies should recruit talent with diverse backgrounds and experience. Most skills specific to the aviation industry are transferable and hiring people from other sectors should be the norm rather than the exception. Carolyn McCall came from a vastly different industry, media, but was very successful in her role as CEO of easyJet.

Search firms should actively educate stakeholders about the benefits of hiring from outside the industry, especially for senior leadership roles. According to the aviation leaders we interviewed, search firms should also challenge companies to consider “non-traditional” candidates. Involving women in the hiring process can result in the hiring of a diverse range of candidates.

Despite ongoing attention to gender diversity in the highest corporate levels in aviation, progress for female leaders in the industry remains mixed. With a small number of female executives in airport and airline boardrooms around the world, businesses that are serious about increasing the number of women in leadership roles need strong advocacy from their CEO, an effective recruitment approach that minimises bias, and strong internal support systems for women.

Looking Forward

The proliferation of gender diversity initiatives in aviation are evidence that change is on its way. For example, IATA recently launched their 25by2025 campaign, which is a pledge between IATA and their member airlines to ensure increasing diversity is a priority. Under the campaign, airlines set a target for gender diversity at the senior leadership, for their pilots, and for their maintenance and ground operations. Another example is the International Civil Aviation Authority’s “Air Transport Gender Equality Initiative.” The initiative will provide statistics and predictive analytics to assist countries in identifying gaps in personnel planning and training that contribute to gender inequality. These initiatives are the types of commitments needed to ensure women participate equally in the global aviation industry.