Women in aviation: Widen the skies

1 Mar 2024 by BusinessTraveller
Pilot (istock.com/Hispanolistic)

The urgent need for more women in aviation far exceeds some basic box-ticking. We spoke to the trailblazers reimagining the industry and pushing for essential gender equality.

It’s 2018. At the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) annual conference in Sydney, Qatar Airways’ former CEO Akbar al Baker declares that only a man could lead his airline, “because it is a very challenging position”. That same year, journalist Angela Epstein appears on one of the UK’s most watched morning shows to discuss the topic: ‘Would you trust a female pilot?’ “If there’s someone in a position of absolute power and control,” she said, “then I’d like it to be a man”. TUI Airways, meanwhile, takes heat for handing out “future pilot” stickers to boys and “future cabin crew” ones to girls.

And while it’s true that no formal barriers prohibit women from pursuing commercial or military careers in aviation, a patriarchal cloud still lingers over the industry. Despite constituting half of the population, various sources reveal that women make up only 5 per cent of commercial pilots, 18 per cent of flight dispatchers, 26 per cent of air traffic controllers and less than 9 per cent of aerospace engineers. Additionally, of the directorate, women hold only 14 per cent of C-suite roles and account for just 3 per cent of CEOs across the world’s top 100 aviation organisations. In fact, the only aviation career where women are not currently outnumbered is within cabin crew.

The truth is, ever since the Wright Brothers took that first flight in 1903, women have remained largely erased and discouraged from aviation. How many of us can say we knew their sister, Katharine, who was instrumental in running the company? But here’s the good news – the tide is turning. And not just under the pressure of do-gooding corporate targets, but thanks to passionate, vocation-led trailblazers and increasingly credible business cases that weigh in favour of diverse teams.

Soaring demand

“Forecasted levels of demand in air service means we’re looking at a fairly imminent shortage of pilots, air traffic controllers and engineers,” explains Katherine Moloney, director of Transair Flight Equipment and founder of Elevate(her) – an online community dedicated to helping women into aviation. “Aviation has some really big challenges ahead. To meet them, it’ll need access to the full breadth of talent available from the largest possible pool – that way everyone gets the opportunity to be a part of this incredible industry, and ultimately, the right people end up filling those jobs.”

With air service demand set to double in the next 20 years, aircraft manufacturer Boeing has suggested 649,000 new pilots and 690,000 new technicians will need to be hired before 2042 in order to maintain the global fleet. More than ever before, cases are being made for the necessity of a bigger, balanced talent pool and its benefits. Last year, SMBC Aviation Capital won IATA’s first Diversity and Inclusion Datathon when it managed to prove a correlation between gender-balanced leadership teams and improved financial and ESG (environmental, social and governance) metrics.

Young female aircraft engineer apprentice at work (istock.com/Louise Beaumont)

But a Harvard Business Review report on the topic, published in 2020, said it best: “Why should anyone need an economic rationale for affirming the agency and dignity of any group of human beings?” With this in mind, it’s clear to see the current challenge for what it is: ensuring that women view aviation as a viable career within a welcoming industry. And making sure that’s the case once they get there.

There are currently many women – and indeed, men – who are dedicated to creating this reality. Just look at Moloney, who, like many, experienced an entirely male-led training environment on her journey to a private pilot licence. “As amazing as my male mentors had been, when I finished my PPL [Private Pilot Licence] training there was a sort of loneliness to it. A lack of connection. It was a natural feeling, I think, of just wanting to share my experience with other women like me. I knew I couldn’t be the only one out there feeling it.”

This was Moloney’s motivation to set up Elevate(her), which offers free membership access to essential resources, online articles (“Why Imposter Syndrome is a load of BS”) and in-person events around the UK. Her first, a lunch at Brighton City airport for which she nervously bought sandwiches, welcomed 40 attendees; her second had 70. Now, her community is in the thousands.

Tough at the top

Moloney may embody the kind of activism happening at the grassroots end of the industry, but what’s going on at the top? “It was 2019, and the first Diversity and Inclusion awards we’d ever held,” begins David Berger, assistant manager of diversity, equity and inclusion at IATA.

“Air New Zealand had won ‘Team of the Year’ and Christopher Luxon – then CEO, now the country’s PM – went up to give his speech.” Luxon, who had declined to participate in panel discussions that did not include female speakers, went on to decry ‘the elephant in the room’: “If we want to be honest with ourselves, IATA and the global aviation industry has an abysmal record on diversity and inclusion.” On the flight back to Geneva, Jane Hoskisson, Berger’s director, knew they had to do something huge. “She challenged us to address this and that’s how 25by2025 was born,” adds Berger.

25by2025 – which aims to improve female representation in the industry by 25 per cent by 2025 – now has 200 signatories committed to bettering the gender balance, with help from IATA itself. From 2021 to 2022, these signatories counted more than 1,000 new pilots (up by the desired 25 per cent), 28 women in CEO positions (up by 20 per cent), plus a 7 per cent increase in technical roles, and a 4 per cent rise across senior positions. Since 2019, IATA’s annual awards for diversity and inclusion have honoured many firsts.

Women like Poppy Khoza, the first female president of the International Civil Aviation Organization General Assembly; Harpreet A de Singh, India’s first female chief of flight safety and accident investigator; and Güliz Öztürk – the first female CEO in the history of Turkish civil aviation. More and more appointments are seating women at the top table: Qantas recently hired its first female CEO and managing director, Vanessa Hudson; JetBlue announced Joanna Geraghty this year as its new CEO – the first woman to lead a major US airline. Mitsuko Tottori was just named Japan Airlines’ first ever female CEO after starting as a flight attendant nearly 40 years ago. At IATA itself, Yvonne Manzi Makolo marks the first female chair of the board as of last June.

Documentary Only Up

Clear vision ahead

In Vancouver, Canada, aviator Teara Fraser founded the first 100 per cent Indigenous woman-owned airline, Iskwew Air, which flew its inaugural flight in 2021. Fraser, a proud Métis woman and single mother of two children, rerouted all her savings into becoming a pilot after her life-changing experience in a small aircraft over Africa’s Okavango Delta. “Back in BC [British Columbia], my instructor really pressed me to perform. He said to me: ‘Teara, you’re going to have to operate at 200 per cent, 100 per cent of time, just to be considered equally competent.’ And I knew that was true.” Fraser went on to gain her commercial license in under a year.

Now, Fraser’s mission is to “rebuild, rematriate and reimagine an air transportation system that centres around equity and sustainability”. The airline is named after the Cree word for ‘woman’, and its launch was blessed by the Musqueam people, upon whose unceded territory Vancouver airport operates. During Covid-19, Iskwew Air also delivered essential goods to Indigenous communities in BC; it runs alongside Fraser’s foundation, Give Them Wings, which helps Indigenous youths get into aviation.

Fellow Canadian, air traffic controller turned Elevate Aviation CEO and activist, Kendra Kincade, was a homeless teenager until a pivotal tour of the air traffic control centre in Moncton, New Brunswick, ignited her career. “I knew I wanted to work there the second I walked in the door,” she says, looking back. “It’s one of the best paying jobs in aviation, the work/life balance is fabulous, and the sense of pride is tremendous – we’re the guardians of the sky.” Kincade’s new documentary Only Up tells her story and that of several women breaking stereotypes in the industry. “Aviation has always just felt like a man, you know?”

The documentary, along with Kincade’s growing number of Elevate Aviation Learning Centres, is all part of the new fight: making sure everyone can “show up as themselves”.

This doesn’t mean Kincade agrees with corporate targets. “Put a number on it and men start thinking women are only hired on account of their gender.” Joanne West, engineer of more than 30 years and maintenance team leader at British Airways’ engineering HQ in Cardiff, agrees. “Unfortunately, these kinds of targets have allowed females into engineering who might not demonstrate the skills needed, which ultimately affects the reputation for the other females who do. Things like ‘International Women in Engineering Day’, to me, promote the suggestion that if you’re achieving something in the industry, it’s not because of your capabilities.”

West postures that women who want to work in engineering will make it happen, like she did, but this is where we lose Kincade: “So many women just don’t know the careers are out there in the first place,” she argues. “Once we bring them in and show them the possibilities, they all go, ‘Oh my God, I want to be in this.’”

And so, while the Global Gender Gap Report tells us pay gaps, unfair maternity leave policies and workplace discrimination may be around for some time yet (full gender parity being a whole 131 years away, so they predict), we can fly knowing that the rocky runway navigated by our female predecessors is being smoothed. “There are some amazing women out there doing fantastic things for sustainability and innovation and community,” Moloney says. “When I look at them, I know the future of aviation is very bright indeed.”

Words: Hannah Ralph

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The cover of the Business Traveller April 2024 edition
The cover of the Business Traveller April 2024 edition
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