The Women in Aviation Advisory Board (WIAAB) in March moved to “change the system,” signing off on 55 recommendations surrounding culture, recruitment, retention, advancement, and data to draw more females into the industry.
Congress established the 30-member WIAAB in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 to address the long-standing gender gap in the aviation workforce. Comprising industry and academic leaders, the WIAAB found that, with the exception of flight attendants, women represent 20 percent or fewer of most major aviation job categories.
Leading into the final meeting of the board, several members participated in a Changing the Face of Aviation panel during the Women in Aviation International Conference to discuss some of the research generating the recommendations. They highlighted a quote from the book Upstream: “Every system is perfectly designed to give us the results we get.”
Becky Lutte, associate professor for the University of Nebraska at Omaha Aviation Institute, added, “Those are the results that we get now. Therefore, our board’s goal is, and our call is, it’s time to change the system.”
After digging into “dozens and dozens” of research reports and conducting interviews, the board found that the data on women in the aviation workplace is inadequate, Lutte said. “In order to talk about moving the numbers, we have to know where we are. What gets measured, gets done.”
Of the existing data, the board discovered that women represented between 11 to 20 percent of the aerospace engineers, airport managers, and dispatcher workforce. Notably, 4.6 percent of air transport pilots, 3 percent of aviation organization CEOs, and 2.6 percent of maintenance technicians are women. Lutte called those the “big three”—the areas where the greatest gender gap exists.
The board further found that “for the last 60 years, the introduction of women into aviation—in nearly every functional specialty—has been stagnant.” For commercial pilots, the numbers have increased but the percentage represented by women has gone up about 1 percent a decade. “This is what we call the flat-line effect,” Lutte said.
Her concern about the data is that it is limited in the jobs tracked. Moreover, data on women in the workforce is now broken down by race or ethnicity, she said.
While striving to change the system, Rene Banglesdorf, founder of the Aviation Collective and co-founder of Charlie Bravo Aviation, stressed, “No one person group or entity has created the system that has yielded these results. And, therefore, there is no one person group or entity that will be able to change those results.” It must be a collective effort, she said.
“Each one of us has the opportunity to influence the culture in our organizations and in this industry to make it better,” Banglesdorf said.
The WIAAB pointed to culture as a key barrier in attracting and retaining women, beginning with a lack of encouragement to pursue the industry and few visible female aviation role models for young girls. On the retention side, research has found that 38 percent of surveyed women in aviation reported considering leaving the industry because of a poor family and work-life balance. Another top reason is negative workplace culture.
“We all have the power to influence and inspire,” said Yvette Rose, senior v-p for the Cargo Airline Association, who sits on a separate but similar Youth Access to American Jobs in Aviation Task Force. Early research in that task force underscored the need to introduce aviation to youth and to start early, she said.
As for recruitment, United Aviate Academy CEO Dana Donati remarked that in exploring state initiatives, none were the same. “Nobody is doing the same thing and that's a problem because nobody knows what to talk about, how to approach it,” she said, adding, “Guidance counselors and teachers need to know what the tools are, how to approach aviation to actually set our students up for success.”
Research further found that counselors rarely pointed to aviation as a possibility yet girls who have gone into aviation typically were introduced to it during their youth. Also, little information is available about the pathways into aviation jobs, Donati said, noting that there are many options from four-year programs to trade schools.
Donati added, “There are major gaps in our system and we as an industry, and also as government, need to work together to come to our educators and make sure that they understand what the process looks like after graduation.”
Kelly Jost, managing engineer for C&S Companies, discussed the importance of mentoring as a key means to retain women in aviation. Research has shown that women tend to leave aviation because they feel pushed out while men leave because they were pulled out to other opportunities. “Mentoring is a big deal,” because it can provide confidence and highlight opportunities, she said. “We need to recruit, we need to retain, and then we need to advance,” Jost said. Other areas discovered were the need for “communities of support.”
Pam Williams, director of academy services for United Aviate Academy, further emphasized, “this is not about pointing fingers. This is about charting a new pathway.” Williams noted that United Aviate Academy opened its doors in 2021 and has 51 percent women enrolled. She said many companies have a number of initiatives to diversify the workforce and they should be highlighted.
“Now is the time for us to make the change that we want to see,” Williams said. “We are in the middle of massive hiring for pilots for the aviation industry. And if we get this thing right, what you see in this room [at the WAI session] will be the norm. This is what we're aiming for.”
The WIAAB has compiled its recommendations in a 70-page report. “This report is timely,” said chair and former U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, during the final board meeting on March 21. “We’re coming out of a pandemic in which thousands were laid off or took early retirement in the airline industry. Just last week two carriers announced that 65,000 flights would be canceled over the next few months in part because of a lack of trained people. Yet since the dawn of aviation itself, the industry has drawn its employees largely from only half of the potentially qualified population.”
She remarked “a lot of things have changed” in other industries in recent decades. “But aviation has largely not changed, and it’s hurting the industry.”
The recommendations—to Congress, the Department of Transportation, the FAA, the industry, or a combination thereof—are intended as long-term solutions that are a “system redesign” to break down barriers.
They delve into multiple areas, from holding an annual summit to addressing issues of workforce uniforms designed for men, leadership commitments, and an industry-wide reporting system on gender bias. In the area of recruitment, they include the development of volunteer role models, internships and field experiences, social media promotion, and virtual resources, among other areas. Federal financial aid, grants, and scholarship recommendations are designed to help alleviate a major pain point of funding.
Others surround childcare support, parental leave provisions, professional development programs, and mentoring programs. Key to making progress, board members agreed, was gathering more in-depth data, especially across minority groups, which are further underrepresented in the workforce.
FAA Administrator Steve Dickson kicked off the March WIAAB board meeting by discussing the importance of the board’s work and the outreach the FAA has been undertaking in recent years to foster a diverse workforce. “A diverse workforce is best equipped for the job of ensuring the safety of an increasingly complex aerospace world,” Dickson said. “The last thing we at the FAA can afford is groupthink. Diversity makes us stronger…Women are essential to the continued safety, innovation, and success of this industry.”