Concern over poor female presence in aviation field

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 3%, writes, WOLE SHADARE

Poor numbers

Statistics show that only about 13% of jobs in aviation are held by women. Today, the aviation industry is grappling with methods to improve inclusion and diversity.

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 the leadership level. 

While India has the highest ratio of women airline pilots, there is not enough female representation in other sectors such as aeronautical engineering.

Globally, the greatest gender disparities exist in the fields of aviation maintenance technicians (2.6%) and senior leadership positions (3%).

Still, underrepresented, but in greater numbers, women make up 11 to 20% of aerospace engineers, aviation higher education faculty, airport managers, air traffic, and dispatchers.

This troubling reality and its implications for the future of the industry is one of the many reasons the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in its 39th assembly urged countries and the international aviation industry to take necessary measures to strengthen gender equality.


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, Aviation Metric interviewed middle-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. 

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Battling the conscious 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. 

Expert’s view

A former Acting Managing Director of Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), Mr. Mathew Lawrence Pwajok, a keynote speaker on integration and implementation of gender-sensitive policies in the workplace (aviation sector) at the launch of the SHEENGINEER 30% Club organized recently by the Association of Professional Women Engineers in Nigeria (APWEN) at the University of Lagos disclosed that the aviation sector is a major contributor to Nigeria’s economic growth.

Pwajok stated that the sector supports over 241,000 jobs and contributes over $1.7b to our GDP. Representing 0.4% of the nation’s GDP as noted by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) report on “The Importance of Air Transport to Nigeria”, Pwajok said, “Sadly, only about 13% of jobs in aviation are held by women.”

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“Today, the aviation industry is grappling with methods to improve inclusion and diversity. A majority of aircraft pilots, Air traffic Engineers, flight engineers, air traffic controllers, and aviation administrators in Nigeria are male. The executive side has not fared any better as only 3% of managerial and executive positions are held by women”, he added.

He reiterated that while there is a consensus amongst stakeholders that the aviation sector would deeply benefit from gender diversity and inclusion, there is however no agreement on the best strategy to attain this.

According to him, in recent years, organisations like IATA had launched initiatives such as the IATA 25 by 2025 gender diversity initiative, a voluntary initiative for the aviation sector to improve female representation in the industry, noting that the campaign was to serve as an initial step to making the aviation industry more gender-balanced.

The campaign which was launched in 2019 is seeking to create opportunities for more women with sought-after aviation technical and policy qualifications and experience in the aviation sector across the globe.

He disclosed that airlines like Aero Contractors and Air Peace deliberately adopted policies to increase the number of women in under-represented jobs like pilots and operations, stressing that in essence, they took deliberate steps to address skill gaps in the sector by promoting diversity and inclusion in their recruitment policies.

Aero, he said as of October 2011 had 101 pilots in total, and 13 of them were female. This he said was a percentage of just under 13%, which is more than double the industry average.

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Aero, Air Peace tries an all-female crew flight

It would be recalled that in 2009, Aero Contractors, became the first airline in Africa to operate a flight with an all-female cockpit and cabin crew.

In 2018, Air Peace launched its first all-female crew flight with its first female captain, Sinmisola Ajibola, in command. Over 20 key positions in the airline, including those of the Vice Chairman, Chief Operating Officer, and Chief of Finance and Administration, are occupied by women. The airline has employed over 2,000 workers since it commenced operations, about 1,500 of them women.

Speaking on the 25by 2025 IATA gender balance by 2025, the Chief Executive Officer of RwandAir, Yvonne Makolo described the initiative as good, stressing that the industry recognizes that there is a challenge and not having enough women in the industry.

She added that a lot needs to be done in a very deliberate way, adding, “Airlines need to be deliberate in bringing women onboard, creating a more suitable environment especially women in more technical field and in leadership to be able to go up the ladder in the industry.

Last line

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.

Wole Shadare