Aviation has a problem with gender equality

According to ICAO’s April survey on the status of licensed aviation personnel by gender, the number of women holding aviation positions was 4.9% in 2021. Keri Allan explores why this percentage is so low.

“Aviation has a problem with gender equality and we need to address this urgently.”

This was the battle cry heard at the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) Global Aviation Gender Summit this summer, which resulted in a call to action by Council President, Salvatore Sciacchitano. 

Closing this gender gap is no small task – according to an ICAO survey, the number of women holding positions as pilots, air traffic controllers, and maintenance technicians was 4.9% in 2021.

This had risen from 4.5% in 2016, but with women making up over 49% of the global population, there’s still much room for improvement.

Why so low?

There are many factors affecting the number of women taking up these roles, which go as far back as childhood. Not enough girls and young women are choosing STEM subjects at school for example, and this is in part down to a lack of exposure to the wide variety of STEM-related careers available.

The stereotype that aviation is a ‘man’s world’ is also keeping many women away, as is a lack of visible female role models that could prove this outdated concept wrong.

Another factor is cost. Pilot training is very expensive for example, with Artemis Aerospace citing course costs at between £70,000-£120,000. This doesn’t encourage a large or diverse entry into the system.

It’s not just getting women to join the industry that’s a problem, it’s keeping them. This is due to negative experiences and struggles rising up the career ladder.

“Understanding the path and difficulties female leaders have faced in their journey to the top is fundamental,” says Kathy Guilfoyle, President of the International Aviation Womens Association (IAWA).

We’re missing critical diversity in leadership. Without diverse talent, we won’t advance as an industry.

“In one IAWA survey most respondents stated that balancing home and work life is key. The female non-parents have a 32% increased likelihood to achieve C-suite positions and above in organisations compared to that of female parents.

“What’s alarming is that our survey showed that over half (59%) of women working in leadership positions in aviation have considered leaving the industry,” she continues. “They’re more likely to be pushed out because of negative experiences, while men who leave the industry are more often pulled away by the lure of better opportunities.

“Furthermore, a third of the women report taking longer to reach leadership positions relative to their peer group. By comparison, 92% of men advanced more quickly or at the same pace as their peer group. We’re missing critical diversity in leadership. Without diverse talent, we won’t advance as an industry.”

Does it really matter?

Aside from being a human right for women to have equal career opportunities to men, it also makes clear business sense to improve gender equality within aviation. IATA’s 2022 global skills survey found that the percentage of pilots in place to meet needs stood at 72%, while for maintenance and technical staff this dropped to 70%.

“There are gaps to fill – we need more pilots and maintenance engineers for example, but if we look at what’s happening within aviation now – the push for sustainability and advances in innovation, there’s a huge demand for a larger workforce,” says Thilly De Bodt, ICAO’s head of strategic planning, coordination and partnerships.

“If the sector doesn’t take advantage of this untapped pool of resources, we may struggle to get the workforce we need.”

Magdalena Olczak-Rancitelli, manager of institutional relations and summit for the International Transport Forum, points to the benefits of diversity.

“Research shows that more diverse teams create better solutions. If something’s designed solely by men then we’ve missed the views of almost half the population,” she says. “It’s also been shown that women often take a more sustainable approach, which will be helpful as we push towards decarbonisation of transport,” she notes.

How to improve gender equality within aviation

Sciacchitano’s call to action highlighted several clear and actionable steps the industry should take to improve gender equality.

Firstly, he highlighted the need to develop better data to strengthen strategic foresight by identifying trends and anticipated needs and mainstreaming gender equality to ensure it informs all policies and planning and is prioritised in budgets and investments.

The ICAO President also called for an increase in representation of diverse talents into executive, management, and board roles and promoting access to STEM education in order to "inspire the next generation”.

We also need our male colleagues to be our allies and champions.

“There are so many different elements that need to come together,” says De Bodt. “It’s looking at mentorship, role models, coaching and overcoming bias, introducing policies, funding and leadership. We also need our male colleagues to be our allies and champions,” she adds.

Many initiatives, from both industry organisations and businesses themselves, are already underway. One of the most well-known is the IATA’s 25 by 25 campaign, which is a voluntary commitment by participating members to commit to increase the number of women in senior positions and in under-represented jobs such as pilots and operations.

IATA itself committed to increasing women in its senior management from 19% to 25%, in governance roles from 17% to 25% and participating as panellists or speakers at its conferences to a minimum of 25% by 2025.

Taking action to address the imbalance

“Our 201 signatories are looking at a range of tools to facilitate better female representation,” says Jane Hoskisson, IATA’s director of talent, learning, engagement and diversity.

“That could be anything from school outreach to targeted development programs for senior female talent development. We recently heard from some of our signatories who are looking at return-to-work programs for those who may have taken a longer career break.

“In 2022 we were at 5% female pilots amongst our signatories, compared to 4% in 2021, which means we have increased by 25% year-to-year, representing more than 1000 new women pilots,” she continues.

“Amongst our signatories, from 2021 to 2022 women in tech roles rose from 13% to 20% and in senior roles, 24% to 28%. Amongst IATA members, we went from six female CEOs in 2019 to 28 today. The trend is definitely going in the right direction, and faster than we would have thought in certain areas.”

The trend is definitely going in the right direction, and faster than we would have thought in certain areas.

New initiatives continue to launch too. At the ICAO’s Gender Summit this summer, the UK Government launched a Global Aviation Skills Taskforce to boost careers in the aviation sector internationally, and also announced that it will fund an international expansion of its Aviation Ambassador Programme.

“The support we’re receiving from the UK Government will enable us to develop a global goodwill ambassador programme to promote aviation in schools and advocate for new policies on gender equality, inclusion and diversity at international events,” De Bodt enthuses.

“Another aspect we’d like to work on at ICAO is creating a knowledge hub. There’s a lot of good examples of improving gender equality in different regions, but they’re often not shared. We want to facilitate this interchange of information, best practice, and advice to help governments, industry organisations, and aviation businesses all to move forward."

There’s a mountain to climb in order to achieve gender equality within aviation, but De Bodt and her industry counterparts have faith that they can reach the summit. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing this job,” she laughs. “The goal is achievable, but it will take time, commitment and perseverance. It’s a case of moving forward one step at a time.

“We’ll need advocates, champions and states willing to step up and put their money where their mouth is, but the outcome of the latest Gender Summit left me with high hopes. The mindset is there, we just need more funding to enable action.”