The future is female: Closing the gender gap in aviation

Sabrina Guerrieri by Sabrina Guerrieri | Mar 6, 2020

Women have played an integral role in the history of aviation. Harriet Quimby was the first woman to gain a pilot’s license in the United States in 1911, Betty Crites Dillon was the first woman to ever sit on the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Council in 1971, and Margaret Dunseith in 1953 was Canada’s first active female air traffic controller. Most recently, Teara Fraser became the first indigenous woman in Canada to found and own an airline, Iskwew Air, the word meaning “women” in Cree.

With all this in mind, we also know however that gender diversity has made slow progress in overcoming a long legacy of gender bias – particularly for high ranking positions. While there have been pockets of success, the stark fact is that only 3% of CEOs in the aviation industry are women, compared with 6.5% of Fortune 500 CEOs. In addition, the aviation industry as whole has a much smaller group of non-CEO female executives ready to move up the ranks.

A long way to go for women in aviation

On a wider scale, The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020 has revealed that gender parity will not be attained for another 99.5 years. That’s a long way to go. It is no coincidence that the United Nations (UN) has included gender equality among its Sustainable Development Goals.

And today, for International Women’s Day, the UN has dedicated a campaign with the theme and hashtag #EachforEqual. The philosophy behind the campaign is that gender equality is everyone’s issue and in everyone’s best interest. It is essential for economies and communities to thrive and leads to a healthier, wealthier and more harmonious world.

Does gender diversity make business sense?

According to numerous studies, a diverse workforce signals an attractive work environment for talent, a competent management for investors, and encourages diverse idea exchange helping organizations to foster innovation and gain a competitive edge.

For instance, but not limited to this example, women have created entire industries by resolving issues that only female travellers would face. MilkStork, a company that ships home breastmilk pumped by working moms on the road, was founded by two women who found themselves juggling the demands of nurturing small children with start-up responsibilities.

However, the link between diversity and company performance may not be as binary as we may think. A Harvard study of 1,069 leading firms from across 35 countries and 24 industries found that while gender diversity related to more productive companies, the correlation only existed in contexts where gender diversity was viewed as “normatively” accepted.

The study underlined that like many aspects of business, the effect of diversity is context dependent, especially on country and industry norms around gender diversity and inclusion – bringing culture to the heart of the matter. Luckily, aviation is a symbiotic industry, bridging and connecting culture and business.

Soaring through the glass ceiling

To assist the industry in identifying potential solutions, seven key industry stakeholders have partnered on the first truly global study on gender diversity in the aviation industry: Soaring Through the Glass Ceiling Report.

The study has interviewed a wide range of leaders and surveyed over 2,400 industry participants to identify both the enablers and inhibitors of gender diversity and to formulate an actionable set of best practices.

The study has concluded that the main inhibitors to gender diversity in the industry are:

  • lack of opportunity for advancement or upward mobility
  • lack of female executives or board members (lack of female leadership)
  • unclear understanding of potential career paths
  • a perception of male-dominance inevitability in the industry
  • the challenges associated with navigating the double bind—be warm yet be tough

On the flip side, the main enablers of diversity are having women role models in leadership position and a strong commitment to diversity from business leaders.

Leading gender diversity by example

In the spirit of #EachforEqual, it’s important that we remove the focus from only aspiring women – which is where it has almost exclusively been in the past. As scholar Douglas M. Branson argues, women constitute only half of the question. Industries and the companies within them constitute the other, and largely neglected, half.  While it’s important that women get a mentor, network, be aggressive, etc., little focus has been on companies and industries who have been slow to show progressive action.

ACI World has been working to do its part. ACI World boasts an over 50% female staff, including its Director General; Director of Security, Facilitation and IT; Head of Security; and, Senior Manager of Environment.

ACI also has an agreement with the International Aviation Women’s Association (IAWA) to work collaboratively on education, training, and job opportunities. This includes an annual scholarship for the ACI Airport Executive Leadership Programme (AELP), which prepares students for senior-level responsibilities and provides more opportunities for professional growth. In the last completed classroom session of the AELP, over a third were women, giving us some optimism that we will see more women in the highest ranks of airports in the coming years.

And as part of a wider industry effort, ACI, in cooperation with ICAO and the International Air Transport Association, participates in the Young Aviation Professionals Programme (YAPP). The selected candidates contribute to each organization’s work programmes related to aviation safety, air navigation capacity and efficiency, air transport economics or aero-political issues. While not specific to women, over half of the YAPPs have been women since the launch of the programme, many of which who have used this initiative as a springboard to further their careers in the aviation field.

With the forecast that air service demand will double by 2037 and reach 19.7 billion by 2040 based on a projected growth rate of 3.7% per annum, we are going to need a large, diverse, and skilled talent pool from which to draw from. Closing the gender gap is undoubtedly a critical factor in aviation’s sustainability in the long haul and to the prosperity of the world.

Sabrina Guerrieri

Sabrina Guerrieri

Manager, Communications, ACI World
Sabrina Guerrieri's main responsibility is to assist the Director General, Chair and selected Directors with their speaking engagements for various ACI and external events.
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