What’s Wrong with Aviation/Aerospace Diversity Strategies?

By Kathryn B. Creedy

10-minute read

Credit: Fly for the Culture
  • Why diversity programs fail
  • Study reveals men still don’t get it
  • Covid’s impact on women’s careers
  • Will Covid force diversity efforts to take back seat?
  • Diversity in corporate best interest
  • Recommendations for success

We already know 2020 is a watershed year, but what is less clear is the fact, with Covid, the aviation & aerospace industries risk the loss of the little progress made toward gender, racial and sexual orientation diversity and the profitability, creativity, engagement and loyalty that goes with it.

A new report – Propelling a Gender Balanced Diversity – published November 11, details not only why the industry has not made more progress with diversity and makes recommendations on how to move the needle.  

While the report focused on gender, lessons learned benefit any diversity effort because it is all about intention, mindfulness and C-Suite commitment to change. Indeed, the report’s first recommendation is not to start with a women’s strategy at all but by creating a purpose for all. No single diversity group represents more than 10% of the industry workforce.

“To achieve meaningful transformation, organizations need to find an inclusive purpose that everyone can identify with,” authors said.  “Women are not the issue. Inclusion is. The passion behind the purpose for change needs to come from the top. We found, despite much effort, there are still clear disparities in people’s perceptions, experiences and opportunities to progress. In many cases, these are gender-related but they also extend to other under-represented groups. This does not rule out having dedicated strategies for specific challenges or investigating why women and other groups are under-represented but it is overwhelmingly clear that people need to unite behind purpose.”

This has never been more important.

In a recent webcast, Women in Aviation & Aerospace Charter (WiAAC), which commissioned the report by Korn Ferry, said one of the first concerns with Covid raised among members, was its impact on women.

Falling away

One startling statistic from a US study reflects the gravity of the crisis. The participation rate for women in the labor force in the US dropped below 55% in April, something not seen in 33 years.

A study by the National Women’s Law Center found 1.1 million US workers ages 20+ dropped out in August and September, 850,000 of which were women, four times higher than men. The unemployment rate for women of color in the US was more than 11%, said NWLC, compared to unemployment rates for white men and women at nearly 7%.

The economic impact of working moms’ coronavirus-related anxiety ws estimated at $341 billion by Dr. Laura Sherbin, an economist and managing director of Culture@Work, who cited the difficulty to engage fully in work. While companies are responding with support including tutors, flextime and child care, it is creating new challenges because workers are clearly not being supported enough.

Will diversity take a back seat?

WiAAC members also questioned whether the economic crisis would curtail diversity and inclusion efforts.

10 ways to get more women into aviation/aerospace

Founder and Co-Chair Sumati Sharma, acknowledging the economic impact of Covid, noted some initiatives cost nothing while others will require investment.

The report comes at an opportune time since, Covid is not the only tectonic shift raising the stakes in diversity efforts.

“The Black Lives Matter movement focused attention on global racism and racial inequities,” said the report. “#MeToo continued to highlight the issue of workplace sexism. Gender pay gap reporting confirmed all sectors of the UK economy are still paying women less than men. Despite perceptions of progress, there is a significant gap for gender in particular.”

The group cautioned against thinking diversity as only about social justice although that is an important goal.

“Gender balance is a business imperative,” the report said. “Leaders need to urgently wake up to the fact that if they fail to address the issue with the required effort, energy and investment, they risk falling behind in the most important areas of business success. Diversity of background leads to diversity of thought which leads to better decision making.”

Corporate best interests

“Failure to adequately address diversity and inclusion risks your reputation and could lose you customers,” said authors. “One study of consumer choice found that 55% of shoppers would switch if a retailer did not take responsibility for its own negative inclusion and diversity incidents, while 42% would pay a premium of 5% or more to shop with a retailer committed to diversity and inclusion. Meanwhile, growing numbers of investors are actively seeking out organizations that are leaders in the diversity and inclusion field.”

They concluded aviation and aerospace lag far behind.

Source: Women in Aerospace: Stuck At 24%

So much effort, so little progress

“For several decades, the aviation and aerospace sectors and STEM stakeholders have invested effort in attracting, retaining, and developing women,” the report concluded. “While some progress has been made, the pace of change has been slow. Only 5% of world’s pilots are women while only 15% of the UK tech and engineering graduates are women.”

Credit: CAE

It is not for lack of effort, as the report points out, having uncovered a huge variety of initiatives deployed to increase gender balance from establishing women’s networks to using technology to ensure job descriptions don’t contain bias. It suggests rejiggering employment search algorithms as the next step.

The percentage of women in the A&D workforce has been stuck around 24% since 2014 (with a slight dip in 2016),” said a 2019 US PWC study. “The percentage of female executives and the percentage of female engineering executives declined from 2017 to 2018, after rising a year earlier. And while the percentages on the hiring of diverse groups increased last year, no single group topped 10%.”

In 2018, Chief Executive noted the rise of women in the aerospace and defense (A&D) sectors, reporting, while women CEOs are only 4.8% of major firms, three of the top five A&D companies are run by women. While recounting the industry’s founding by “swashbuckling” males, it also recognized Olive Ann Beech, who took over Beech Aircraft in 1940.

“Their roles are not ornamental or driven by political correctness, but the culmination of a terrific performance in challenging mainstream career track postings,” wrote Author Jeffrey Sonnenfeld.

All this is very impressive since the International Air Transport Association (IATA) General Assembly assembled a male-only panel to talk about the dearth of women in aviation leadership. IATA’s failure is the perfect example of the problem. The fact is women have always been there but have been overlooked in a male-dominated industry.

Chief Growth Officer, Wheels Up, former President JetSuite.

“Realize you are smart enough, pretty enough, thin enough,” Stephanie Chung told the 2020 Women in Aviation Int’l conference. “In fact, you are quite enough to change the narrative. Be bold, be you!”

Inclusion is the issue

The report continued. “Leaders, no matter how senior and regardless of background, must be openly and authentically committed to improving gender balance, and need to champion their message throughout the organization and beyond it. People across the organization – men as well as women – must be encouraged to share their stories and listen and learn from others.”

Another failing is viewing diversity as little more than achieving equity for equity’s sake or tokenism. This diminishes, said the authors, the importance of senior leaders not only talking the talk but walking the walk.

“When purpose and inclusion are mismanaged, the disappointment and division can cause significant derailment on the journey to achieving gender balance,” the report concluded, adding companies must be careful not to incur a backlash from men who feel they are being discriminated against. It’s all about inclusion.

Lack of data

Another reason progress is slow, the report concluded, is the lack of targeted analysis of unique gender [and other diversity] challenges existing within aviation and aerospace.

While there are many programs to encourage under-represented communities to think aviation, there are absolutely no metrics about what works and what doesn’t.

What does work is bosses actively encouraging women to pursue career opportunities. In general, these women didn’t think they were qualified for these opportunities, a familiar refrain and a factor in why women aren’t making more progress. Indeed, it was not until their boss – mostly male – encouraged them in their ambitions they took action.  

The report indicated 48% of all respondents agreed they have been actively encouraged to apply for, or have been considered for, other positions in their company. For female respondents, the figures were: aerospace 46%; aviation 47%; defense 44%; and other sectors 48%.

Women aviation maintenance technicians indicated this support extends to the line. United’s Chix Fix Team was championed by Vice President Don Wright after being approached by the airline’s Managing Director of Airframe Repair and Overhaul Bonnie Turner, both indicators of a changing culture.

United Chix Fix Team 2018, one of three at the Aerospace Maintenance Competition made up of women and the only one from a commercial airline. Credit: United Airlines

Interviews I did for Aviation for Women revealed men stepping up to be mentors becoming more like surrogate fathers or big brothers who put newbies in their place if they made a neanderthal remark. Even so, like many women in men’s fields it takes a Teflon skin and quick wit to make it.

“To improve gender balance, leaders at all levels in the organization should actively encourage individuals to think about — and act on — their ambitions, and should be willing to offer support and advice,” said the report.

WiAAC is working with the Royal Aeronautical Society to develop mentoring programs providing independent guidance to women from outside their own companies. Not only does this enhance talent mobility but it also sends a clear message that leadership is committed to the cause, said the organization.

“When top teams send clear signals on improving gender balance, employees are more likely to see clear opportunities for women to excel and less likely to change industries to advance their careers,” the report concluded.

Negative industry perceptions

Perception is perhaps the final reason women and others aren’t making progress – aviation and aerospace have a bad rep. Women and people of colors are so scarce, those interested can’t see it to be it.

Released earlier this year, Women in Aviation: A Workforce Report by Associate Professor for the University of Nebraska Aviation Institute Dr. Rebecca Lutte, detailed how women viewed aviation/aerospace which constitutes a considerable barrier to diversification.

  • Women perceived aviation to be an adventurous, fun career.
  • They saw it as a way to prove their personal abilities.
  • They saw it as a challenging career.
  • But they also perceived it as a good-ole-boy network.

“The results indicate that workplace culture, described as good-ole-boy network, is still a deterrent to the ability to recruit and retain women in aviation,” said Lutte in her report for March/April 2020 Aviation for Women.

the WiAAC report found women thought they needed to leave the industry to pursue their ambitions.

Finally, they perceived it having a negative impact on work-life balance. This looms large in the industry’s ability to recruit and retain diverse talent. Long before Covid, antiquated work rules were a problem on which I reported here and here as millenials demand change.

In one final thought, authors said: “The most important lesson is that change cannot be put off any longer. Now is the time to start the conversation, to take action.”

At least now companies know what they are doing wrong and what they need to do to make it right.

Study Findings: Men still don’t get it

Men in the aviation and aerospace sectors were three times as likely as women to think the representation of women had significantly increased compared to five years ago

90% of respondents felt that perceptions are an inhibitor to the professional advancement of women. This includes perceptions that the industry is ‘male dominated’ (90%), lacks female executives or board members (89%), lacks promotion and/or upward mobility (85%), does not enable the flexibility to meet the needs of both work and personal life (85%), may not offer equitable pay (77%).

Approximately one-third of female respondents (31%) working in the aerospace sector thought they would have to change industries to advance their careers versus 19% of males working in the same sector

A higher proportion of females (84%) than males (67%) felt the perception that pay may not be equitable is an inhibitor to the advancement of women.

Respondents agreed making gender balance a reality would be of personal benefit, senior leaders (86%) and Blacks and Asians (80%) were most likely to agree.

Half of all females felt they had been treated differently because of their gender, notably higher than in other sectors. Only one-fifth of males felt they had been treated differently, only slightly higher than other sectors.

Many who switched from another sector such as retail, said they never thought about gender but moving into aviation and aerospace made them aware of feeling and being treated different.

Only 56% of females felt they could see clear opportunities for women to excel in their company, compared to 84% of males. 29% of females actively disagreed.

Pay equity in leadership roles was rated as an effective practice by the highest proportion of respondents from all sectors (aviation 50; aerospace 53%; other 49%).


Start with organization CEOs, Chairs and Board members in individual discussions on their understanding of inclusion and the impact on representation.

Understand how diversity features in the bigger picture of organizational performance and facilitate alignment of passion and vision for future outcomes. Agree a routine of conversation several times per year to reflect, observe and revisit.

Investment not tokenism. Agree how inclusion and representation can be measured and incorporated into organizational performance measures. Introduce an immediate program, inviting  colleagues throughout the organization to build inclusion into their role and focus to determine awareness and appetite.

Identify an organization champion who will build the community of inclusion leads throughout the organization and be supported, recognized, and rewarded as a longer-term plan is developed.

Plan an organization design review to understand how roles can be

restructured to accommodate inclusion review and recommendations.

Launch a working group to understand a sustainable long-term approach to measurement within signatory organizations and how to resource the central collation and reporting of the information.

Don’t be a ‘one hit wonder’. Build on the individual discussions to ensure commitment to long-term change and what it will take as well as the longer-term vision.

Agree how best to start sending practical messages immediately about what can be done to drive inclusion and gender balance.

Adopt people practices including performance, talent, engagement, and reward to identify gaps or available options to build a sustainable change platform.

Identify a passionate, accountable executives responsible for the success of the program to support and advise on the long-term change program who can influence stakeholders and dedicate time to galvanize support.

Published by Kathryn B. Creedy

Kathryn B. Creedy is a veteran aviation journalist and communications strategist. My byline has appeared in CNN Travel, The Points Guy, BBC Capital, Los Angeles Times, Forbes Online, The Washington Post, Flyer Talk, Business Traveler, Business Travel Executive, Afar, Flightglobal, Centre for Aviation, Aviation Week & Space Technology, Low Fare & Regional Airlines, Inflight, Business Airports International, Airports, Centerlines, Regional Gateway, Runway Girl Network and Metropolitan Airport News among others. In 2018, I was cited for the Sapphire Pegasus Business Aviation Award for her work as a business aviation journalist. Created four newsletters, including two web publications Author: Time Flies - The History of SkyWest Airlines. Consistently received bonuses or commendations throughout my career. Founded Commuter/Regional Airline News, building it to become the bible of the industry. Co-founded C/R Airline News International to cover Europe. Founding editor of Aviation Today's Daily Brief, VLJ Report. Founding Senior Analyst North America for Centre for Aviation and North American Editor for Low Fare & Regional Airlines and Inflight. Key Words: Aviation, travel, business jets, commercial, aircraft, airlines, publishing, public relations, corporate communications, media specialist,

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