How can we develop women leaders in aviation?

By Antonia Molloy - June 05, 2018

Across the board, women in leadership are underrepresented. While the number of women in leadership positions has increased, there still remains a long way to go. According to research by Grant Thornton, the percentage of businesses around the world with at least one woman in senior management has increased significantly, rising from 66 per cent in 2017 to 75 per cent in 2018. However, at the same time the proportion of senior roles held by women has marginally declined. Grant Thornton concludes: "This suggests that businesses may be focused on ticking the 'diversity' box to avoid an all-male leadership team, rather than creating an inclusive culture that leads to a genuinely diverse senior management team."

In the aviation industry, in particular, women’s representation at the top of the pyramid remains low and is significantly lower than in other industries. So, what are the issues? Why do they continue? And what are the barriers holding women back from leadership positions more generally?

The state of play in the aviation industry

The lack of women leaders in aviation is one that Professor Elisabeth Kelan, Professor of Leadership at Cranfield University, explored at the university’s Developing Women in Aviation event in April, 2018. This event brought together key figures from the industry to discuss the obstacles facing women who want to reach the top, and to facilitate dialogue around how things can be changed.

Data from the International Society of Women Airline Pilots, published by The Telegraph in April 2018, shows the woefully low number of female pilots employed by major airlines. United comes out on top, with 7.4 per cent, while UK airlines British Airways and easyJet have just 5.9 per cent and 5 per cent respectively. Norwegian comes out last, with 1 per cent. Overall, the share of the world’s pilots that are female is 5.18 per cent, accounting for 7,409 female pilots.

Similarly, the gender pay gap is significant in the aviation industry. Ryanair comes out worst, with the median pay difference between male and female staff at 72 per cent, while easyJet and British Airways have figures of 45.5 per cent and 10 per cent respectively. The UK average is 9.7 per cent.

That is not to say that airlines are not working to move the needle. For example, in October 2015, easyJet launched the Amy Johnson Flying Initiative, which aimed to double the number of female new entrant pilots to 12 per cent over two years. Having achieved this within a year, easyJet extended the target and now aims for 20 per cent of new entrant cadet pilots to be female by 2020.

Women leaders: the obstacles

Professor Kelan talked about some of the deep-seated issues that women face when trying to ascend to leadership positions. One issue is the "glass cliff" phenomenon. This is the concept that women are more likely than men to be promoted into risky leadership positions – in other words, it could be argued that they are set up for failure. And when they do, the fallout can have a negative impact on all women.

Then, there are the entrenched gender stereotypes that impact women in the workplace – often, these biases are unconscious, so that people may not even be aware of them. For example, care and empathy are viewed as feminine traits, while competition and aggression are viewed as masculine traits – when women exhibit the latter, they are often looked upon unfavourably.

When it comes to promoting people into leadership positions, stereotyping leads to less accurate decision-making. Furthermore, it can lead to stereotype threat - that is, the tendency to "perform" as expected of the stereotype. For women in leadership positions, this can lead to subconsciously self-manipulating performance. On the other side of the coin, there is the concept of stereotype reactance – that is, when stereotypes are made explicit people react against them and thus do not confirm stereotypes.

Professor Kelan also touched on the idea that people experience cognitive dissonance around what leadership means. While they might aim to promote women into top roles, they may view the traits of a "leader" as inherently masculine – for instance, assertiveness. This can make it difficult for women to fit into the parameters expected of them because they are often seen as aggressive.

Activating change agents

So, what can be done to bring about change in the aviation industry?

Ultimately, every single individual within an organisation has to be committed to transforming the workplace culture in which they operate. That not only means encouraging women to train as pilots, but encouraging and promoting women into senior leadership roles, too.

In male-dominated industries, such as aviation, it is vital to focus on attracting, retaining and developing women and to hold senior leadership teams accountable for getting women into key roles. Coaching and mentoring are also important tools, especially for women who might feel "stuck" in their careers and not sure how best to reach the next rung on the ladder – at this stage, the right support and guidance can be the difference between women giving up or staying the course until those golden opportunities arrive.

For now, there remains much work to be done to change the gender balance within the aviation industry. However, it is clear that the industry is aware of the issues and, with hard work and dedication, the picture looks set to be very different in the not too distant future.