by Patricia Gilbert

IFATCA Executive Vice President Americas

For the past two years, I have had the honour of serving on the Women in Aviation Advisory Board (WIAAB). I was one of 30 women appointed to the Board by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, which was charged with developing and providing independent recommendations and strategies to explore opportunities for encouraging and supporting female students and aviators to pursue a career in aviation.

At most air traffic control facilities and in the associations that represent air traffic controllers the absence of an equal balance of women is obvious. In fact, at any airport; flight deck; maintenance, repair, and overhaul facility; or office in an aviation company, the absence of women is also noticeable. A close look at the data available reveals striking under representation of women in aviation. 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 largest gaps are in senior leadership positions (3.0%), professional pilots (4.6%), and maintenance technicians (2.6%).

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. This troubling reality and its implications for the future of the aviation industry is one of the many reasons the WIAAB was established when the FAA Reauthorization Act was signed into law in 2018. Many members of Congress and their staff who championed Section 612 of the Act deserve recognition and the industry’s appreciation for providing the foundation for the Board to conduct this vital work albeit the global pandemic added more complexity by requiring virtual forums to conduct most of the work.

Per the statute, the WIAAB was dissolved on March 28, 2022, when Chairperson Dr. Heather Wilson transmitted the Report to the FAA Administrator and Congressional leadership on committees of jurisdiction.

Even though the WIAAB’s work to produce the Report is complete, the important work to ensure the implementation of the 55 recommendations is just beginning.

Why does this work matter?

No other industry connects humanity like aviation; it expands to all corners of the globe and all aspects of our lives. The aviation industry is the safest and most technologically innovative transportation industry in the world. Aviation is not only critical to transportation infrastructure; it is also a key component for each country’s economy. For the aviation industry’s continued success, a massive talent pipeline is required. To meet the challenges of today and tomorrow, aviation must increase its outreach and deepen the talent pool of its workforces. Simply put, the aviation industry needs more women to pursue aviation careers for the industry’s safety, sustainability, profitability, and ability to innovate.

What are the recommendations?

Before making recommendations, the WIAAB undertook an extensive effort to understand the underrepresentation of women in aviation. The WIAAB discovered that there is a complex system of barriers that impedes the recruitment, retention, and advancement for women in aviation. We captured those barriers in a Barriers Timeline Model. This model depicts how, without intervention, barriers compound over time. It also shows opportunities for strategic interventions—leverage points that are the basis of the report recommendations.
The recommendations are grouped into five general areas:

  • Culture — overarching barriers throughout each stage of the journey
  • Recruitment— at early phases of a woman’s journey
  • Retention — through initial training and workforce entry
  • Advancement — into mid-career and leadership/executive opportunities
  • Data – identify and address gaps in data, and publish data to track progress

Some of the Culture recommendations include:

  • The U.S. establish a permanent advisory committee to ensure sustained focus across current and future administrations, and coordination among many organizations on implementation
  • Increased visibility of women in aviation careers
  • Industry-wide independent reporting program for incidents of gender bias, discrimination, and sexual harassment

Recommendations for Recruitment include:

  • Early exposure to aviation through improved outreach and aviation-focused educational opportunities
  • A virtual resource centre—“one-stop-shop”—with information about career pathways, educational and scholarship resources, and engagement opportunities to pursue careers in aviation

Retention recommendations include more and improved family and work/life balance policies, and Advancement focuses on the importance of professional development and formal/informal sponsorship programs and opportunities.

Finally, Data recommendations call for identifying and removing data gaps to track and improve progress; continuing research into the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in aviation; and the evaluation of recommendations implemented from the Report.

How do Mentorship, Sponsorship, and Culture connect to effect positive change?

Mentoring programs are critical for women in the aviation industry. Mentorship is one of the ways in which knowledge is shared and individuals are developed, supported, and encouraged. It can inspire women to consider aviation careers by opening doors women don’t know exist or know how to open. Mentors also can provide essential “navigational support” to women as they face barriers throughout their career journeys. For example, in aviation, women have fewer women role models as examples of success. Men who encounter difficulty may be encouraged to persist, while women and minorities may be more likely to see adversity as proof that they do not belong.

Mentorship also can play a significant role in building and sustaining an inclusive culture within an organization. Culture, in turn, is important to creating an environment in which mentorship is valued and fostered. Effective use and integration of mentors can be a highly beneficial means to drive organisational culture change, including developing and retaining talent, strengthening gender diversity and inclusion, reducing turnover, and improving employee engagement and productivity.

Sponsorship is another critical success factor, particularly for advancement. Mentors and sponsors play distinct, but important roles, which are important to consider in understanding how and when they can be used during one’s career planning and progression to lead to optimal success. A sponsor advocates for their protégés — typically junior employees, helping to open doors and providing visibility so that others can recognize their capabilities and potential for advancement. Sponsorship also serves leadership by providing deeper insights into barriers or obstacles in sponsored employees’ career paths. This understanding can foster innovation in problem-solving, especially in the areas of human capital, retention, and advancement.

Culture in aviation and its importance intrinsically links to or underlies most, if not all, of the recommendations. Without broad and deep commitment to culture change, more tactical initiatives are unlikely to be fully effective. Changing culture is a long-term commitment, and no single individual or entity is responsible for it. The absence of broad senior leadership commitment and transparent, public effort to achieve real culture change, however, cements the status quo and actively discourages progress.

Safety — Our number one priority. Do we have the culture to support it?

From the FAA to airports, from general aviation and airlines, and from every entity integral to aviation, the industry consistently displays its commitment to safety in articles, policies, data, programs, mission statements, mottos, etc.

Aviation is the safest mode of transportation. This is an accomplishment we should all be proud of regardless of our role. Yet, there is always room for improvement. Explicit and implicit gender discrimination, exclusive cultural norms, sexual harassment, and gender bias can all directly and negatively impact aviation safety. Bias can impact behaviours and decisions and undermine organisational culture. Well-established aviation safety systems, such as Crew Resource Management/Team Resource Management (team management focused on communication and interactions) and Safety Management Systems (an organisational approach to managing safety and ensuring proper risk controls), are built on assumptions of inclusivity creating a safe environment for free and open communication.

The National Aeronautics and Space Association’s (NASA) research and investigations following the tragedies of Apollo 1 and Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia reflect the importance of open communication for safety of the industry. Today, NASA applies the five-factor principles to each employee’s decision-making: Decision-making is contingent on an engaged workforce that is included and treated fairly.

What can you do?

The Report includes many recommendations for industry organizations, the FAA, Department of Transportation and Congress. It is just as important we individually do our part.

Doing your part means:

  • Talk about the importance of a more balanced and welcoming industry
  • Use your position, role, or influence to address or correct a negative culture
  • Hold your leadership accountable
  • Get active in making a difference

Together and individually, we can do more and be better to improve aviation’s culture and continue to advance an industry that puts safety first. The solutions proposed by the report, in no way are exhaustive, but designed to share responsibility for the change. Working together, we can increase the number of women in aviation careers, which in turn, results in an industry on the leading edge of safety, innovation, and profitability. An industry for which we are accountable and hold to the highest of standards.

"IFATCA's Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Task Force (EDITF) would like to recognise the tremendous job Patricia Gilbert has done both on the Women in Aviation Advisory Board (WIAAB) and on the IFATCA Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Task Force (EDITF).
The EDITF will adopt the key findings from the WIAAB report into our IFATCA Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Plan.

Through dedicated, well-planned work, we can make an impact and help improve the culture within aviation. We continue towards greater equality and inclusion, creating a better functioning IFATCA amid a changing culture."

— Sverre Ivar Elsbak
Chairman IFATCA Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Task Force"


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