Womens History Month – Women in Aviation

Every year when Women’s History Month comes around, I cannot help but think about all the women that have blazed trails for the rest of us. I think about the women that were the ‘first’ and the women that had to break down barriers. I try to comprehend what it was like when women did not have the right to vote or were not allowed to run in a marathon. I am thankful for how far we have come, but at the same time I know we have a long way to go.

The aviation industry is still heavily male-dominated today, with women making up less than 20% of the workforce in most occupations (the exception being flight attendants). Progress is slow and numbers are not increasing as quickly as we need them to. Why is it important to have more women in aviation? It is important because of workforce shortages, for diversity of thought, safety culture, innovation, profitability, visible role models for the future, and sustainability of the industry. Why can’t we make progress faster? There are a whole complex number of reasons and barriers that should be considered and understood to answer this question. The FAA report “Breaking Barriers for Women in Aviation: Flight Plan for the Future” discusses these barriers and provides 55 recommendations on how we can accelerate success to recruit, retain and advance women. Examples of those barriers include but are not limited to lack of inclusive/flexible policies, gender bias, lack of industry role models, lack of tailored professional development, tokenism and sexual harassment. For the full picture, you can review the report here: WIAAB_Recommendations_Report_March_2022.pdf (faa.gov)

There is a lot of talk about this topic without enough action. My goal for this article is to inspire you to do something. To make a change for the better, for yourself, for your organization, and for future generations. I will use personal experiences to make these issues real and provide solutions to consider.

How do we recruit and attract women to the aviation industry?

I had two memorable moments in my life where aviation was presented to me, and I reacted. When I was in elementary school we got to choose a person in history to research, write an essay about, dress like and present to the class about. I chose Amelia Earhart. I was drawn to her adventurous spirit and the records she broke. I liked reading about a person I could relate to more than most of the historical figures we were accustomed to. I hadn’t learned about very many women in history, so I was intrigued by her story and wanted to be like her. Several years later when I was in junior high, my parents put me on an airplane to visit my extended family in California. I got a window seat, and a stared out of it for the entire trip. I saw the Grand Canyon from the sky and that lit another spark for me to follow up on. The important takeaway here is to get kids exposed to aviation at an early age. Organize and volunteer at outreach events, provide role models to inspire, and teach them about all the different careers in aviation.

How do we retain women in the aviation industry?

I came very close to leaving my job when I became burned out from trying to be a mother to two small children in a two working parent household. I was trying to be everything to everybody, I was not sleeping, and without intervention I was prepared to take a big pay cut and go work part time in a job that I would have no passion about. Luckily, I had mentors and allies that talked me through my options, and I ended up working part time in my aviation consulting role for a few years while my kids were young. I know I’m not the only one who has experienced this situation. In fact, in a IAWA and Oliver Wyman study done in 2021 it was found that 59% of women have considered leaving the industry, with one of the top 3 reasons being lack of flexibility or work/life balance. This shows the importance of having a mentor, having family friendly work policies that are shared with employees, and supporting women through different stages of life with employee resource groups or other communities of support.

How do we advance women in the aviation industry?

If we can first recruit and then retain women in aviation, we will ultimately have more women in leadership. When women are starting out in their careers, they will be able to see themselves in those roles, and the cycle will sustain itself. When I was new in my career, I thought if I just worked hard and kept my head down my efforts would be rewarded, and I would advance. However, over time I learned from others how important it is to network, advocate for yourself, and find others that will advocate for you. Get to know people in your organization and understand what their contributions are. Understand who the decision makers are. Spend time and get to know people both inside and outside of work, because your relationships with others can either propel your career or it can stall your career. Sometimes you will not be in the room for a conversation about a new, exciting project and deciding who the team will be to perform it. You may not have a say in whether you get promoted or not, or whether the company will spend money on professional development for you.

Having an ally or a sponsor that will advocate for you is extremely important. Be an ally and a sponsor yourself and take opportunities for professional development training whenever possible.

During this Women’s History Month, we can all feel good about the positive progress that is being made while striving to do more. Let’s keep it going and implement some of these recommendations to recruit, retain and advance women in the aviation industry. Do you have any strategies that have worked for you or your company? Who is someone that has inspired you and why? Please share your thoughts and ideas, because we all benefit from it in the end.

Kelly Jost

Great Lakes Service Group Leader, Aviation

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