Another Case for Increasing Participation of Women in Aviation
The fact that the aviation industry lacks workforce diversity is old news. Various scholarly studies and industry reports have highlighted the need for diversity and inclusion in the transportation sector. Despite acknowledgement by industry stakeholders that a diversity and inclusion problem persists, historically marginalized groups such as women and people of color continue to be significantly underrepresented in many transportation professions. For instance, despite significant progress in inclusion of women in other historically male-dominated fields such as medicine and engineering, representation of women in aviation careers has not changed significantly in the last three decades.
This trend should be a concern for everyone in the aviation industry. The 2021 “Women in Aviation: Workforce Report” revealed that women make up less than 20 percent of most aviation occupations, and “over a span of 60 years, the percentage of women commercial pilots has changed at a rate of about 1 [percent] a decade and mechanics have increased at about half that rate.” While other sectors have made progress in increasing representation of women at the senior management level, the aviation industry is lagging. Case in point, women account for about 6.4 percent of CEOs across S&P 500 companies, but only 3 percent of airline CEOs are female.
Prior to the COVID- 19 pandemic, the aviation industry was projected to experience 4.6 percent annual growth in passenger traffic. Although the pandemic has impacted air travel, the International Air Transport Association expects the industry will experience a full recovery by 2024. This growth is being celebrated amid concerns about a projected serious workforce shortage. In a 2019 report, Eno identified several aviation industry workforce challenges — among them, competition for workers, the changing nature of high-skill jobs, and a high number of retirees. Given these and other challenges, aviation industry stakeholders need to take proactive measures to tap a diverse talent pool to ensure sustainability of the industry.
There have been notable efforts to address the sector’s current gender gap. The Women in Aviation Advisory Board, established by Congress in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, consists of a team of experienced aviation professionals tasked with developing and providing independent recommendations to the FAA on increasing participation of women in aviation careers. In its final report, the board identified barriers to entry into aviation carriers ranging from lack of industry role models toys for young children to an absence of tailored professional development for women executives. In addition, the board provided recommendations to tackle the current aviation gender gap under five subcategories: culture change, recruitment, retention, advancement, and improving data collection. Whether the recommendations of the Women in Aviation Advisory Board will have a true impact on gender diversity in the aviation industry remains unknown.
A 2019 report prepared for International Aviation Women’s Association identified five drivers and five inhibitors of sustainable gender diversity and inclusion in the aviation industry. The drivers include:
- Recognizing and highlighting female role models
- Firm commitment by senior leadership to diversity and inclusion
- Leveling expectations of individual business leaders and management
- More women in decision-making positions
- And deliberate planning for diverse talent management and succession planning.
The inhibitors of gender diversity identified are:
- A lack of opportunities for upward mobility or advancement opportunities
- A lack of female mentors in senior leadership positions
- Systematic policies that do not promote advancement of women
- Organizations that do not prioritize diversity
- And traditional gender biases and stereotyping.
The inhibitors and drivers of gender diversity proposed in this report are by no means exhaustive. However, they provide a starting point for organizations that want to promote gender diversity.
Undoubtedly, increasing participation among women would significantly benefit the industry. Over the years, women have proven themselves as capable and able aviation professionals in various roles. It is unclear why the numerous studies and recommendations that show the importance of gender diversity have not resulted in increased representation of women in these careers. For a long time, aviation has been viewed by society as a man’s career. In many ways, these old-fashioned ideologies have not changed. For the sector to benefit from the value that women bring to the profession, there needs to be deliberate change in workplace culture in the aviation industry.
Caroline Marete was Eno’s 2021 Thomas J. O’Bryant Fellow and a PhD. Candidate at Purdue University, School of Aviation and Transportation Technology. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Science and Operations from Moi University, Kenya and a Master of Science in Aviation and Aerospace Management from Purdue University. Caroline’s doctoral research is airport sustainability, primarily assessing the impacts of sustainability planning to airport operations and to airport stakeholders.