I had a problem. My flight’s departure time was fast approaching, and I couldn’t get to the flight deck. Despite trying to inch my way along the aisle, I was stopped every few rows by eager passengers, wanting to chat and take a photo. I’m not famous, so I couldn’t understand what the fuss was about, until a passenger told me, “We’ve never seen a female airline pilot before, I want to prove to my kids that you exist!”
With the worldwide push for gender equality in STEM fields in full swing, we’ve seen only slow movement of the needle in the aviation industry. According to UNESCO, female scientists comprise 29 percent of their cohort and women now make up 33 percent of NASA’s astronaut corps. In contrast, according to a study of over 100 airlines by the International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISA+21), women only account for 5.1 percent of the total airline pilot group.
Captain Tara Cook, President of the International Society of Women Airline Pilots, said, “At ISA+21, we have always known that to move the gender needle, the aviation industry’s leadership needs to redefine the stereotypes of aviation culture and look at the systemic mechanisms that have been holding women pilots back for years.” It’s one thing to say we want gender diversity in the aviation industry, and another to actively create programs that will push the agenda. The change is not happening naturally, so ISA+21 is collaborating with airline and industry senior leadership teams worldwide to foster their “3-Pillar” approach for success: inspire, support, and advocate.
The success of Inspire programs, which encourage girls and young women to join the industry, can be seen by the increase in the number of women now flying for regional airlines around the world, with many of these airlines boasting some of the highest percentages of female pilots.
Scholarship programs are key to supporting mentoring and professional development initiatives for women. ISA+21 has provided over $1.4 million in support of scholarships over its history, and partners with industry leaders to provide life-changing opportunities for many passionate women as they navigate their aviation careers.
Airlines that are successful at increasing the number of women in their flight decks have leadership strategies that eliminate bias from hiring practices and promote policies and programs within their organization to support flexibility and retention for all pilots. Policies that are better for female pilots are also better for all pilots. Within the global aviation community there are airlines that are now succeeding in making a difference. Current data shows that airlines with diversity programs outperform those without by nearly 10 percent.
Diversity of thought and inclusive culture contributes to the safety and success of the airline industry. The need for leadership to embrace initiatives, policy, and programs that contribute to addressing inequality is clear; this should be a mandate for male and female leaders alike.