Analysis: WIAAB Cites Culture as Driving Women from Aviation

By Kathryn B. Creedy

In its report, published Tuesday, the government’s Women in Aviation Advisory Board (WIAAB) cited culture as the biggest barrier to attracting and retaining women in the industry. While this may not be news, to have culture identified as the over-riding issue in keeping women at bay, may mean something will actually get done.

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However, it is unlikely government will make it happen since laws already exist against the bias, discrimination and sexual harassment cited in the report. As WIAAB reported, it is the leadership and the will to enforce those laws within a company, that will make the difference. For that reason, it is really up to women in aviation and members of WIAAB to act collectively to turn recommendations into action. We saw the impact of the “Me Too” movement on the rich and famous, but it has been largely ineffective for the average woman in the workplace as experienced by women who are forced to sue employers for bias, discrimination and sexual harassment.

The 84-page Breaking Barriers for Women in Aviation Flight Plan for the Future outlines recommendations beyond culture including recruitment, retention, advancement and further data gathering.

“Culture underlies most, if not all, of the recommendations” it said.

The Board’s many recommendations are a compilation of similar suggestions over the last decade. But if it can move the needle by changing culture, the report will have done its job in eliminating gender biases, discrimination and sexual harassment including, shockingly but unsurprisingly, FAA medical exams.

For instance, it called for a permanent advisory council – a Women in Aviation Advisory Committee – to promote long-term accountability and provide sustained focus across current and future administrations and industry. More importantly, it called for the establishment of an industry-wide independent reporting program for incidents of gender bias, discrimination, and sexual harassment. This must be more than a data-gathering exercise however, it must come with action against companies and government agencies who perpetuate the culture we have today.

“In addition to combating bullying, harassment, and discrimination, it is imperative leaders in government and industry take steps to proactively foster an environment of respect and professionalism,” the Board stated.

The importance of its findings and recommendations surrounding biases, discrimination and harassment cannot be understated especially since it puts solid evidence behind what many believe are just anecdotal reports of problems in the workplace. The report confirmed what too many women already know. Women are not supported in what some see as the “toxic masculinity” of the modern workplace. Complaints are met with retaliation when reporting bias or harassment. They are often ignored and forced to watch as perpetrators are rewarded and promoted and this is not unique to women. The conclusion of this growing number of women filing lawsuits against their aviation employers is the industry may talk a good game but it does not have your back.

Credit: Shutterstock

Ominously, more than half of women in the industry have considered leaving citing implicit bias, discrimination, lack of career opportunities and lack of work/life balance.

“Research confirms that gender bias, discrimination, and sexual harassment are significant issues in aviation,” the WIABB report said. “In a 2018 survey of Women in Aviation International (WAI) members, 62% of respondents indicated that sexual harassment remains a significant problem in the industry while 71% reported that they experienced sexual harassment in the workplace or another professional aviation setting. Some 81% reported having witnessed sexual harassment.

“Moreover, 51% of the women who had reported, complained about, or indicated they would not submit to the harassment, experienced retaliation,” reported WIAAB. “A survey by the Association of Flight Attendants found that 68% of the responding U.S. flight attendants experienced sexual harassment during their flying careers. Only 7% reported it; with concerns over retaliation and or inaction driving under reporting. A specific concern is under reported sexual abuse during FAA medical examinations. Examples of abuses include unwarranted breast and pelvic examinations, and skin checks requiring the removal of clothing. The impacts of these unacceptable violations of trust can be life-altering, as evidenced by the USA gymnastics team testimony on abuse during medical examinations.”

The Link to Safety

These findings are why two of the Board’s major recommendation, if developed, would go a long way in changing the status quo – the formation of a national reporting system and the recommendation the FAA incorporate bias, harassment, and discrimination awareness education, and allyship training in Safety Management Systems (SMS).

This recognizes the link between safety and an inclusive workplace, an argument well made by Captain Kimberly Perkins in her report on the subject. “We have an opportunity to enhance safety while simultaneously improving the industry’s workforce development strategies. Without addressing this systemic culture issue, the recruitment of any personnel other than the demographic majority will be mired.”

The Board agreed, citing a 2018 article by the Royal Aeronautical Society concluding, “Without an inclusive environment, there can be no guarantee of safety.”

I’m with her! It’s never too early to start a love of aviation.

The Board continued, saying, “Explicit and implicit gender discrimination, exclusive cultural norms, sexual harassment, and gender bias can all directly and negatively impact aviation safety. Bias can impact behaviors and decisions and undermine organizational culture. Conversely, belonging and inclusion build trust, which is fundamental to establishing and enhancing system safety. Psychological safety is ‘the amount of relational trust one feels in [their] environment.’ It includes being able to speak up, to address an error without fear of retribution, and to be one’s authentic self.”

No Surprise

It is no surprise that culture is the over-riding problem, since a study by Women in Aviation International, authored by WIAAB Board Member Dr. Rebecca Lutte, Associate Professor, The University of Nebraska at Omaha Aviation Institute, concluded the perception of the industry’s overwhelming Old Boy Network discouraged women.

“While participation of women in the workforce has increased dramatically over the past four decades, despite all efforts, the percentage of women in the aviation industry hasn’t appreciably changed,” said the Board. “Fewer than 10% of licensed pilots are women and the percentage of women in maintenance fields is in the single digits.

“In most aviation occupations, women make up less than 20% of the workforce—and for the last 60 years, the introduction of women into the industry has been largely stagnant,” the report continued. “Much of the aviation workforce also lacks ethnic and racial diversity. Women who belong to additional underrepresented groups are part of a very small minority, facing unique barriers and often even greater challenges.”

WIAAB’s conclusions confirm Flightglobal’s recent report showing the problem is equally acute in aviation management. Its annual assessment of the progress of women in executive ranks at airlines found a 1% increase in their numbers in 2021.

“Overall, some 15% of the 600 positions surveyed by the publication covering the C-Suite were taken by women, marking a one-percentage-point increase from the 2020 survey,” Flightglobal reported, commending JetBlue for becoming the first airline with women as the majority of its executives. “Few airlines achieved a 50:50 gender split among their executives in the survey. That milestone was recorded by Air New Zealand, Southwest Airlines, TAP Air Portugal and VietJet,” reported Flightglobal.

FA/AW News curates and updates a list of Women in Aviation, Aerospace & Defense, the only permanent online list, with impressive results showing hundreds of women in leadership positions in aviation/aerospace.

Starting With Leadership

While recognizing culture as the top barrier for women in aviation, WIAAB acknowledged it is hardest to change but starts with leadership.

“Women don’t feel like they belong,” the board said. “Changing culture requires consistent leadership commitment over time in thousands of large and small actions across government and industry. Although women in aviation have broken through barriers and made remarkable contributions, the industry has been largely unsuccessful in meaningfully attracting, retaining, and advancing women.”

Among the leaders to be included in this effort is pilots, according to Captain Perkins, who, in a landmark study cited the attitude of male pilots.

“Sixty four percent of male pilots say pushing for equity on the flight deck is not their responsibility,” said Perkins in a 2020 study, reflecting an astonishing violation of the principles of crew resource management. “Only 16% are actively doing something to make a positive change while 20% want to help but don’t know how. When I share stories of being called a ‘token’ or having someone say, ‘another empty kitchen,’ they are shocked and immediately attempt to discredit the occurrence.”

More than Pay, It’s About Work Rules

The report comes on the heels of a new pay-equity study showing something new. Young women in the big metro areas are pretty much on par with their male counterparts when it comes to pay. However, their careers stumble as soon as they have a family, something not experienced by their partners. This is also part of the culture that must be changed.

The issue has long been reported by women pilots who push for changes to work rules to accommodate the emerging needs of the millennial-generation pilots – work rules that even male pilots want but, to date, unions have yet to address. Women pilots are stunted in their careers and robbed of upward mobility on the flight deck in favor of a more predictable schedule.

FA/AW News recounted these problems in a two-part report on how the industry and unions much adjust in order to attract more women.

Millennials are driving dramatic changes in work/life balance which has been accelerated by the pandemic and, according to the Board, changing culture cannot be achieved unless work-life balance is addressed.

While its recommendations are aimed at women who now carry the main responsibility for caregiving, solving work/life balance issues provides an opportunity to change the family – allowing men to take on more caregiving, something they say they want. It will also take a change of women’s mindset in allowing men to take over rather than defaulting to sacrificing their own careers. Consequently, we must be careful that, in focusing on women, we don’t ignore the wider workforce changes wrought in the last three years.

To its credit, the Board recognized this. “The scope and benefits of some of the recommendations also are not limited to women,” it explained. “These recommendations improve the representation of women in aviation by improving the recruitment, retention, and advancement of all talent.”

The Board recommended “at a minimum”:

  • Examine, update, and create policies and workplace cultures that allow [employees] to balance work and life — particularly caregiving responsibilities
  • Paid parental and paid family leave, scheduling flexibility, access to childcare, and accommodation of nursing mothers
  • Ensuring employees are aware of and understand these benefits and be able to use them without fear of retribution, reprisal, or impact on career progression.
  • Mentoring women and providing essential navigational support along their entire careers which is seen as critical to retention.

Other Recommendations

In addition to culture, the Board’s recommendations fall in four other categories and reprise many of the suggestions made by the industry over the last decade or more.

“For women to have an indisputable sense of belonging, the FAA and industry must increase the visibility of women in aviation careers,” said the Board. “The FAA and industry must also address language and professional appearance standards…two of the most powerful external manifestations of a culture’s values. The FAA must also encourage organizations to implement inclusive aviation uniform and professional appearance standards policies.”

That timely recommendation comes as Alaska becomes the first airline to move to gender neutral uniforms.  First announced at the end of 2019, the airline said this week it is enabling frontline employees to dress in the uniform that best aligns with their gender identity.

How Women Come to Aviation

The insights in this report analyze how girls and women are attracted to aviation careers and what makes a difference in pursuing aviation. For instance, not surprisingly, guidance counselors have little influence while parents do. In addition, mentors are better for retention than recruitment and youth outreach is an important influencer.

Fifty four percent of respondents said exposure to aviation as a child was instrumental in pursuing a career. “The Experimental Aircraft Association found most were introduced to aviation under 10 years of age with 64% under the age of 20. Only 15% reported being exposed to aviation in school,” said the report. “In a survey of professional women, 70% said they never considered an aviation career citing lack of familiarity, interest, misconceptions about needing STEM skills and ignorance of how to start.”

The Board recommended establishing programs fostering early exposure to aviation careers including the development of government/industry Virtual Resource Center. It wants a one-stop-shop for exposing students, parents, teachers and volunteers to aviation career pathways, education and scholarship resources. This is a good idea given time consuming research now involved in exploring aviation careers.

While government support is always welcome – especially when it comes to increased education funding – much of this work is already done by industry and state governments which long ago moved to fill the void in promoting aviation careers as recounted in this FA/AW News article – Industry Educational Resources Reaching Millions, Serious Education Reform Needed.

Indeed, hardly a week goes by that does not include a story on a new aviation program opening at the high school somewhere in America. But the industry has also developed hundreds of resources, much of it FREE, connecting young people to aviation/aerospace. These include the University Aviation Association’s centralized scholarship listings, Women in Aviation’s Girls in Aviation Day, AOPA’s high school aviation curriculum, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University’s free online coursework designed for girls and women, Experimental Aircraft Association’s online courses, the American Rocketry Challenge and state moves to develop career and technical education (CT&E) programming for aviation and aerospace. Last year, the National Aviation Hall of Fame teamed with PBS/Think TV to develop early education aviation programming providing an unprecedented opportunity to reach young children.

And, in a perfect example of connecting the dots between aviation education programs and industry funding, yesterday, FedEx announced a grant to support NAHF’s Discovery of Flight program. Similarly, the JetBlue Foundation also provides funding for such programming.

FA/AW News developed a list of aviation/aerospace education resources designed to connect the dots between industry programs, educators, museums and other STEM and aviation/aerospace oriented programs.

AAR Corp, Embraer, Airbus, Boeing, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Southwest Airlines, Collins Aerospace, OneWeb, Boeing, Textron and GE Aviation are among those leading the creation of new community education programs and air camps to strengthen pipelines to their operations. 

While calling for government and industry to develop and implement aviation-focused curricula and career education, it might be better to support the many programs already existing. The fact remains, that much of this work has already been done and only needs increased support. The one thing the industry keeps doing is re-inventing the wheel to attract people to their own organization instead of supporting with partnerships and funding current programming to make them accessible to under-represented communities.

Consequently, the Board recommended increased federal financial aid for aviation careers addressing the biggest need and greatest role government and industry can have in changing the diversity of the industry.

Equally important is the long-suggested public service campaigns promoting aviation careers across all channels including television, radio and, of course, social media. These should emphasize women and other under-represented groups, especially those who have achieved leadership roles.

Still, recommendations do address voids in workforce development:

  • Training for career workforce development professionals
  • Immersive confidence camps so young girls and women learn about opportunities in aviation.
  • FAA/Department of Transportation establishment of recruitment offices and career readiness partnerships with other federal entities
  • Coordination with state governments on nationwide workforce needs
  • Connecting students interested in aviation careers with educational resources.
  • Clearing pathways to funding for schools serving women, minorities, and veterans
  • Development of a Scholarship Program Toolkit, to easily implement scholarship programs.
  • Partnerships between FAA, DOT, and the U.S. Military, to enhance awareness of aviation career opportunities
  • Enhancing Career & Tech Education programs in high schools enabling students to earn an FAA certificate in high school.
  • Mentoring programs for students including a mentoring app designed specifically for the aviation industry will allow young women to easily access and connect with mentors.
  • Resources needed to develop and maintain partnerships for educational programs leading to aviation-related certificates.
  • Updating and industry support of the FAA’s website to include for curriculum resources, internships, scholarships, and pathway programs.


The Board concluded the industry will be unable to achieve culture change without the advancement of women into leadership roles. Women must be included in decision making, in leadership roles and be visible.

Recommendations include:

  • Development of professional development programs purposefully designed for women
  • FAA provision of resources and best practices for implementing such programs
  • Development and promotion of affinity groups, communities of support, and employee resource groups that provide critical skills development and facilitate relationships, improve engagement and retention and necessary for career advancement.
  • Opportunities to participate in corporate strategic initiatives on innovation and problem-solving
  • Creating environments for recognition and advancement.
  • Advocate for women by adopting personal sponsorship plans to increase access and visibility for women and other underrepresented groups to stretch assignments and development opportunities.

Finally, the Board recommended continued data collection and one area might be in establishing whether the hundreds of women in leadership positions in the industry have really made a difference in changing the culture. After all, findings it cited on how little the participation of women in the industry have changed, suggest they haven’t.

Other gaps include:

  • Gender statistics in workforce data
  • Pay parity information
  • Data on women in aviation occupations and leadership positions
  • Gender data by race/ethnicity
  • Research into the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in aviation and the evaluation of recommendations implemented.

Not Up to Government to Change Industry

While government can play a role in many areas related to diversity, equity and inclusion, ultimately it is up to the industry’s self assessment of how it treats women and minorities, something that remains to be done. Still, the value of the WIAAB report lies in the follow through — realizing its recommendations. It provides a roadmap for change if the government and Congress don’t let it join the thousands of government reports now lying fallow.

Source: Mimi Thian via Unsplash

Consequently, it is up to us to collectively take up the baton. We cannot leave it to others to decide our fate. We can attract thousands to aviation but if we don’t change the culture, we will just have more of what we have now.

At stake is nothing less than the health and competitiveness of the industry, as WIAAB concluded.

“The continued strength and success of the U.S. aviation industry must not be taken for granted,” said the Board. “Aviation faces significant workforce challenges that threaten the industry’s sustainability, profitability, and ability to innovate. Identifying and recruiting talent from underrepresented groups is an obvious and necessary strategy to address workforce needs throughout the industry.”

Without widening the pipeline and changing the culture, the job simply cannot be done. Consequently, WIAAB and the Youth Access to American Jobs in Aviation Task Force, expected to report later this year, need to identify what can be done with or without government actions and make them happen.

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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