What are the causes of gender imbalance in the aviation industry?

“Women aren’t mechanically inclined and frankly don’t want to be pilots. Forget passion – some only applied to this scholarship program because 'someone said it’s a good opportunity,' ” ridiculed instructor Nathan. I bit my tongue and brushed my long, dark hair out of my face as my mind raced. Yes, there are fewer female pilots. They account for only 5% of airline pilots globally. But this figure has little to do with women’s ability. Results from flight schools often prove that women obtain higher grades during training (MCCARTHY, F., BUDD). Yet, the imbalance is not limited to the flight deck. Aviation statistics show a lack of women representation in several roles within the industry – for example, females represent only 3% of airline CEOs.

Roots in the Past

In an attempt to identify the causes of gender imbalance, British Airways conducted a study during 2013, in which 650 children between the ages of six and twelve participated (MCCARTHY, F., BUDD). The findings highlighted that girls lack exposure to aviation as a career option. This can be traced back to historical gender biases. Throughout history, certain careers (such as pilot or senior manager) were reserved for men, while a select few (such as flight attendant) were for women. In response to this, a handful of airlines launched initiatives to raise awareness of traditionally male-dominated aviation roles among girls at school.

Studies show that girls are not exposed to aviation as a career option.

Diversity and Inclusion

While these initiatives are catalysts for gender diversity in the future, more efforts are required to eliminate bias and stereotypes and to stimulate inclusion in the workplace. The former CEO of Flybe, Christine Ourmieres, "believes many of the old fashioned perceptions and assumptions about women still go unchallenged in the aviation industry" (ARPAD SZAKAL). Gender stereotypes have barred women from progressing in their careers and serve as an opportunity to criticize any display of ‘masculine traits’ - such as assertiveness - which happen to be essential for leadership roles.

These barriers created a shortage of female role models and mentors in the industry. It is hard to set career goals when employees cannot see themselves represented in the field. The importance of female mentors for women between the critical ages of 30 and 40 (the decade in which careers advance while families are started) cannot be overemphasised (ARPAD SZAKAL).

Perhaps IATA’s 25by2025 initiative will combat this for the next generation of women. Ironically, of IATA’s 31 board of governor members in 2020, only one is female. And in 2018, one of these members (the CEO of Qatar Airways) notably explained to a reporter that women were incapable of doing his job. (He later apologized and said he would gladly welcome a female CEO after him) (ALANNA VAGLANOS).

Gender diversity programs are only effective if the ideal is embodied throughout an organization, and not simply designated an HR issue (as is generally the case). When changes are made at top level, the effects trickle down to remove any tolerance for excluding women who are part of the workforce and addressing hurdles faced at work.

It is hard for women to set career goals when they do not see themselves represented in the field.

Overcoming Hurdles

Women have to overcome several hurdles to progress in the aviation industry. These include creating a culture that promotes a work-life balance. After all, women often scrap their dreams to work in aviation out of fear of not being able to have a family. Perhaps more airlines should follow in the steps of the low-cost Indian airline, IndiGo, that created a daycare facility at work to care for pilot’s children. This aids both male and female employees - and to make any substantial changes for equality in the world, the notion that ‘women are primary caregivers’ will have to be reconsidered.

Sexual remarks and other inappropriate comments from colleagues is another challenge faced by women. The historically macho male 'flight club' environment and sexualizing women in the past as flight attendants have not made it easy for this industry to progress on the gender balance scene. Some women feel they simply have to brushoff demeaning remarks and grow a thick skin to survive.

The perception of educators and recruits were also revealed as obstacles. A study proved that pilot recruits of both genders admitted negative perceptions about women's proficiency, despite their higher scores during initial training. A South African study "found significant differences between men and women’s flight instructors’ perceptions of women’s flying ability" (MCCARTHY, F., BUDD). Women therefore often pressure themselves with unrealistically high expectations to succeed. In an interview with Emilie (a European Boeing 737 cargo pilot) about her journey to the flight deck on my Aviatrix West blog, she said: "I did feel the pressure. But this is because of myself, no one directly gave me this pressure. The biggest thing I was afraid of is being called bad and associating this with the fact that I’m a girl. I was scared that I would be bad at flying and that people would blame it on the fact that I’m a girl. Of course, no one ever told me this. It’s just me that put this pressure on myself."

While we tend to focus on changing the attitudes and behaviours of players within the industry, the views of society at large still influence a woman's ability to transition into aviation roles. For example, studies show that female pilots often receive snide remarks from passengers, who have less confidence in a woman's ability. A 2012 passenger survey indicated that "51% of respondents indicated that they were less likely to trust a woman pilot" (MCCARTHY, F., BUDD). Eva Marseille, a Dutch Boeing 747 cargo pilot at Cathay Pacific, wrote about her unfortunate encounter during her Boeing 737 passenger flying days on her popular 'Fly with Eva' blog. "You? Pilot? You have got to be joking! This does not feel right. Tell me, do you even know the left from your right?" asked a middle-aged man when Eva was making herself a cup of coffee in the galley during boarding. "Left, right? Who needs to know about that? I got my pilot license when I found it in a pack of cornflakes. Enjoy your flight sir," replied Eva, before returning to the flight deck.

Moving Forward

We can hope that bringing more females to the table will accelerate a global desire for change, as well as eradicate systemic exclusion.

One example of recent progress would be the changes for military pilots. The United States Air Force recently made history by dropping the height requirements, since “(t)he previous height screening criteria eliminated about 44% of American women between the ages of 20 and 29” (ROB MARK). In South Africa, Air Force ejection seats and aircraft were modified to allow for a variety of anthropometric measurements, since the original design had “a considerable effect on the selection of both black and white females” (Lieutenant Carlo Gagiano).

The military in some countries have adjusted requirements that previously excluded women.

The civilian world is also actively breaking down barriers. Certain companies have prioritized scholarships for women, such as CAE's Women in Flight program which awards five fully paid scholarships annually to airline mentored cadets. This addresses the leading problem young female pilots faced (according to one study in which 3 female pilots participated)