Most of us have probably heard about Amelia Earhart, but have you heard of Blanche Scott and Bessie Coleman?

Blanche Scott not only became the first woman to drive across the U.S., but the first female pilot to fly in America. Her instructor, Glenn Curtiss, inserted a block of wood beneath the aircraft’s throttle pedal so that Scott could learn to manoeuvre the plane, but only on the ground. During a lesson, the block ‘inexplicably’ dislodged, sending Scott off on a short first ‘hop’ of a flight, making history and demonstrating that women were perfectly capable of piloting an aircraft.

Bessie Coleman became the first black female pilot and the first Native American woman pilot in 1922. Prior to her success as a pilot, her brother teased her about not being able to learn to fly, which only fuelled Coleman’s desire to do so. Unfortunately, aviation programs in the U.S. denied her for being both African American and a woman. Keeping her head held high, she was eventually accepted into the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in France, where women could learn to soar the skies. She also took French classes, to learn the language and prepare her for training.

But it’s not just as pilots that women have made an impact on aviation. In 1906 Emma Lilian Todd began designing her own airplanes, initially studying dirigibles before she moved onto designing airplanes. Todd's first plane flew in 1910 and was piloted by Didier Masson. In more recent times, during WWII women stepped in to fill gaps in aviation and were trained to be pilots, air traffic controllers and undertook flight simulation training.

However, gender diversity continues to be a hot topic in the aviation industry. According to Women in Aviation: A Workforce Report, by the University of Nebraska at Omaha Aviation Institute, women in aviation are underrepresented primarily in technical and leadership roles and overrepresented in low income, low profile positions. Of each of the areas of aviation, women make up:

  • 5% of airline captains and 5.1% of all pilots
  • 4% of mechanics
  • 3% of CEOs, COOs, and other key leadership positions
  • 16% of airport managers and air traffic control
  • 40% of TSA screeners
  • 79% of flight attendants
  • 86% of travel agents

With just 3% of C-suite level roles in the aviation industry being held by women, the sector continues to have one of the poorest gender balances. A lack of female leaders as role models has been identified as one of five primary inhibitors to obtaining greater representation of women in the aviation industry. The others included challenges associated with bias, organisations failing to prioritise or promote diversity, and policies and practices that close off potential career paths. A lack of opportunity and a belief that female voices aren’t heard is another hurdle to overcome.

But it’s not all bad news. A global study on gender diversity in the aviation and aerospace industry by the International Aviation Womens Association (IAWA) and Korn Ferry, the Soaring Through the Glass Ceiling report, tells a story of an industry that has made important progress in improving the diversity of its workforce  – though it still has a long way to go.

What do we need to do?

The Soaring Through the Glass Ceiling report highlighted five activities and actions that aviation and aerospace organisations have undertaken which have contributed the most progress in diversity and inclusion.

  1. Publicly recognise and highlight female role models.
  2. Ensure unquestionable senior leadership commitment to diversity and inclusion.
  3. Level set expectations with individual contributors and management.
  4. Ensure more women have a seat at the table.
  5. Invest in more inclusive talent management and success processes.

We all have a part to play and the report sets out a range of things organisations, business leaders, HR leaders and individuals need, and continue, to do. This includes encouraging mentoring, having diverse candidates for roles, profile and celebrate female success stories, and communicate that gender diversity is an organisational priority.

The stakes are high for the aviation and aerospace industries and diversity is crucial to business success. By promoting diversity and inclusion, organisations will be in a better position to recruit the best talent, retain top performers, build higher performing teams, develop creative solutions to new challenges and opportunities, and ensure sustainable growth.

Want to discover more?

If you’re interested in this subject then you can read the Cranfield blog: An inclusive approach to advance women in the aviation workplace — how to best engage men in the conversation about women.

You can also listen to our leadership podcast with Cranfield alumna and winner of the Distinguished Aviation Alumna of the Year Award 2020, Dr Sarah Qureshi (PhD Aerospace 2016), Founder and CEO of Aero Engine Craft.

You may also be interested in listening to the 2018 Cranfield Alumni Conference sessions on diversity and talent management. The conference brought together Cranfield alumni and faculty to explore, discuss and unpick issues around the lack of women leaders, the multigenerational workforce, ethnicity on boards, engaging men as allies, and being a great employer for those with disabilities or those who are working carers.