Is gender still holding women back in the aviation industry?

By Arpad Szakal - February 26, 2020

This article originally appeared on on 13 January 2020.

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 proportion of women holding C-level roles in the industry is just three per cent. For some businesses it’s a matter of regulatory compliance or corporate social responsibility; others regard it as a key source of competitive advantage. The aviation sector, however, continues to have one of the poorest gender balances. The lack of females is particularly apparent at leadership level.

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

Battling the unconscious bias

Some of the main obstacles aspiring female leaders face include bias as well as assumptions about women`s interests and capabilities. Gender stereotypes also have a major impact on women’s career progression. As an example, care and empathy are typically described as feminine traits, while competition, confidence and assertiveness are often viewed as masculine traits. When female leaders exhibit some of the latter, they are often criticised or viewed unfavourably. This can make it challenging for women to fit into the exact parameters expected of them without being seen as overly aggressive. Christine Ourmieres-Widener, ex-CEO of Flybe, who started her career as a technical specialist, believes that many of the old-fashioned perceptions and assumptions about women still go unchallenged in the aviation industry.

Carol Anderson, General Counsel at Gulf Air, and former long serving board member to the International Aviation Women’s Association (IAWA), comments: "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 feels that this can be linked to the lack of proper career guidance at universities and intrinsic bias in assessment in professional environments.

Are there a lack of female role models?

Another major challenge for women is the distinct lack of female role models at the highest corporate levels. Both Anderson and Oumieres-Widener agree that coaching and mentoring are important tools, particularly for women who are not clear on how to best reach the next level on the ladder. Support and career guidance at the right time can be the difference between aspiring female leaders giving up or staying the course until the right opportunity to step up arises.

In a bid to encourage young women to become pilots and engineers, Ourmieres-Widener initiated Flybe’s "FlyShe" campaign which aims to address the gender imbalance in the aviation industry, and inspire the next generation of aviators. Anne Hustinx, General Counsel and Company Secretary at the Schiphol Group, who rapidly rose through the ranks of international law firms, thinks the gender of the mentor matters as "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."

How to overcome the barriers and actively promote yourself

To effectively position themselves for more senior roles, women should adopt some important habits to raise their profile and get ahead. One of the most important steps aspiring leaders can do is to put themselves forward for challenging roles which they may not feel completely prepared for. Taking on P&L opportunities earlier on in a career might result in increased confidence. "You don’t always have to wait until you are 100% ready for the next role up, you can stretch yourself," advises Ourmieres – Widener.

1. Negotiate for yourself confidently

Women tend to be great at negotiating on behalf of their business, but may not feel as confident negotiating for themselves. Senior female leaders we’ve interviewed agreed that identifying your top priorities in terms of career goals and desired compensation level need to be effectively communicated. Having the courage to be bold and forthcoming is critical in building a high-profile career in the male-dominated aviation sector.

2. Proactively manage your career

The female leaders we interviewed attributed their success to proactively managing their careers. Speaking up about your interests and long-term aspirations early can prompt others to think about you when relevant opportunities arise. Communicating the value that you bring to your organisation and actively advocating for yourself is key in your journey to the C-suite.

3. Build your internal and external network

Building a personal network of advisers both within and outside of your own organisation is equally important. Taking advantage of formal gender diversity programs within your own organisation and joining a non-profit board can also significantly increase the number of your contacts and advocates. There are several networking associations promoting the advancement of women in the aviation and aerospace industries: IAWA (the International Aviation Women’s Association) has been operating for more than 30 years and runs networking events around the globe as well as regional and annual conferences ( Others are Women in Aviation which has regional and country-specific chapters and the "Ninety-Nines" is a female pilot association with regional chapters also promoting flight as a career choice to young women.

The Royal Aeronautical Society’s (RAeS) Women in Aviation and Aerospace Committee (WAAC), established in 2009, encourages more young women to consider aviation and aerospace as a worthwhile and exciting career. The RAeS and WAAC have developed and recently launched the Alta Mentoring Scheme which allows female mentors to offer their skills to women who seek support in specific career or personal areas (such as maternity leave, career breaks or work-life balance) and for female mentees to identify a mentor with the suitable experience to suit their development needs.

What can organisations do to build a more inclusive culture?

1. Drive gender diversity from the top

In Ourmieres -Widener’s view improving the environment for diversity "must involve a cultural change at the highest corporate levels". She emphasises that the board itself needs to be an outspoken advocate for diversity. Real change can only take place when the entire leadership is on board and realises that they cannot effectively execute the strategy without having diversity.

In the Netherlands, companies are required by law to have a certain percentage of women on their boards. At the Schiphol Group, diversity and inclusion is taken very seriously and the leadership is keen to promote females 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 in leadership roles

It is essential for businesses to provide adequate support for their newly-appointed female leaders and, with new hires, having a focused onboarding plan in place to support their transition. Identifying and assigning mentors who can answer questions and help them navigate company or industry-specific issues is important.

3. Make flexible working available to everyone – not just women

Create a workplace that is more flexible about how and where work is performed. Adapting a more flexible mindset about how work gets done can be a great help to both male and female employees.

4. Be accountable

Holding the organisation and individual leaders accountable for gender targets can be a powerful tool for change. Ourmieres-Widener believes, "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.

So what role do executive search firms play in helping organisations along their diversity journey?

The role of executive search firms

Search firms have an important role to play in helping clients build diverse leadership teams.

When looking to bring in female talent from outside, organisations should strive for a process that produces a diverse range of candidates.

Specific recommendations include embracing a wider and deeper universe of target companies and prospects. Most skills within aviation are transferable and bringing people in from other sectors should be the norm rather than the exception. Carolyn McCall is a good example of someone who came from a vastly different industry (media) and was very successful in her role as CEO of easyJet.

Aviation businesses tend to be very traditional and risk averse, and search firms could take a more active role in educating 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 more to consider "non-traditional" candidates and to take more risks when hiring.

Including women in both client and search teams might also have a positive effect on producing a more diverse range of candidates.

Despite ongoing attention to the topic of 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 and assessment approach that minimises bias and assumptions as well as a strong internal support mechanism for women hired from the outside.

Initiatives such as IATA’s recently launched 25by2025 campaign, a pledge between IATA and the airlines to ensure they are all prioritising diversity, is evidence that change is on its way. The campaign asks airlines to set a gender target for their senior leaders, and other underrepresented groups such as pilots, maintenance and ground operations. At a global level, the International Civil Aviation Authority’s "Air Transport Gender Equality Initiative", by providing statistics and forecasting, will be a practical tool to assist countries in identifying gaps in personnel planning and training and gender inequality.

Arpad Szakal Aviation and Aerospace Lead, Cellence Plus

Arpad Szakal has a broad industrial background, having worked on global search mandates across the aviation and wider transportation sectors. Prior to his career in executive search and assessment, Arpad worked at the aviation departments of two leading international law firms in London where he handled various EU regulatory matters including passenger rights. Arpad earned his LL.M. (Adv.) degree in Air and Space Law at the Leiden Institute which is one of the leading academic research and teaching institutes in the world, specialising in aviation law and regulation. He is also an active member of The Aviation Club of The UK, the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) and the Air League.