Fostering diversity in aviation requires more than a simple shift in the recruitment numbers. The industry must instill a cultural change

Alina Nassar, President of the Board of Directors, International Aviation Womens Association (IAWA) believes that, despite progress, aviation is still far from achieving ICAO’s or the United Nation’s gender parity goals.

“Women are still underrepresented at board and executive levels; the gender pay gap is still an issue; and unconscious bias affects the progression of women in the industry.”

Globally, barriers to women’s advancement in the industry may be similar. But in Nassar’s opinion, “how much they impact may differ by region or industry arm.”

Strong views

From recalibrating recruitment processes to increasing the visibility of women in key roles and creating more female-friendly networking opportunities at the highest levels, women who have reached the top in aviation have strong views on barriers that must be eliminated to improve the representation of women in the industry.

As CEO of Flybe and a member of IATA’s Board of Governors, Christine Ourmieres-Widener is one such leader. A former engineer on Concorde, Ourmieres-Widener started as a technical specialist, a field where skills are highly valued, and women are in short supply.

Her own career progression, Ourmieres-Widener acknowledges, has not been “a bed of roses.” She says people were not used to being managed by a woman or not prepared to see a woman at the table. “Maybe they are not able to tell the same jokes, or to talk about inappropriate subjects.”

As a woman in a senior position, you always feel like everybody is watching you, and any mistake you make will be magnified under a lens. It takes a lot of resilience and courage to still go for it

However, she accepts that the world is changing and generally speaking, people aren’t shocked to see a woman in the boardroom any more. “Nobody is asking me to serve the coffee during meetings,” she deadpans.

To make meaningful improvements in aviation, however, Ourmieres-Widener believes that the industry must develop fact-based objectives for increasing diversity.

“If you don’t give yourself objectives, it’s difficult to think you will ever reach them,” she says. “If we want to change, we have to define what [diversity] would look like, and we have to design how we will achieve it, what are the ways, what are the resources and projects we want to launch to deliver it,” she said.

She emphasizes that recruiting greater numbers of women at entry level and removing barriers to their career advancement must be about the recognition of their skills and equal consideration, not tokenism.

“I don’t want to be the CEO of an airline because I am a woman,” she says. “I want to be CEO of an airline because I’m the best person for the job. I want to be a CEO around the table like all the others.”


5% - Women account for fewer than 5% of airline CEOs around the world.


Personal development

Brussels Airlines CEO, Christina Foerster, agrees that “fortunately, we live in an age where chances for women are getting better.”

Foerster launched her management career in the hotel and consulting industries, moving to aviation via the Lufthansa Group where she has held a series of increasingly senior positions. She was the first woman to be appointed the CEO of a Lufthansa-owned airline.

“The Lufthansa Group has always supported me in my personal development,” she says. “I think without personal development, you may be promoted but the likelihood you will succeed in the new position is not so high.”

Foerster is pleased that the profile of the diversity debate is on the rise, not only for gender diversity but for all facets, from sexual orientation to age and ethnicity. “Acknowledging that everybody’s different but you still have to be on the same team is what we’re working on at the moment,” she says.

Like Ourmieres-Widener, though, Foerster is clear that there is room for improvement throughout aviation because of a variety of factors, such as the need to boost women’s confidence to apply for roles, how job descriptions are written, and intrinsic bias in assessment.

“I believed in the past that you could use the same process to recruit a man and a woman,” Foster explains. “Now, I’m really doubting that because of experiences I’ve had in the last few years.”

In Foerster’s view, improving the environment for diversity must involve cultural change at the highest corporate levels. “People talk more often about what women leaders wear than what they do, which I think is an interesting bias. Also, somebody said to me that women fail more in corporate tests than men, but I would have to say that probably the whole environment is made by men for men,” she says.

“From my history,” Foerster goes on to say, “as a woman in a senior position, you always feel like everybody is watching you, and any mistake you make will be magnified under a lens. It takes a lot of resilience and courage to still go for it.”


Discussion on… Diversity standard

The International Standards Organization is two years into the development of a diversity and inclusion (D&I) standard. Lorelei Carobolante, President and CEO of G2nd Systems,
a global HR research and development consultancy, is leading the international subject matter expert group undertaking the project.

Carobolante outlines the greatest challenges in working with D&I topics to produce manageable standards as:

Shifting from an event-based or reaction-based approach to a systemic, proactive change approach. Gaining recognition of relevance and meaningful commitment from organizational senior leadership.

Developing capacity and capabilities to manage the process as a continuous progression, which can apply to a multi-year change effort.

Recognizing and responding to polarized opinions and perspectives, especially when fluctuating market conditions impact individual and group reactions, which consequently also influence actions and sometimes strategic organizational direction.

Addressing implicit or unconscious biases held by some leaders or other stakeholders about roles of women and gender influences or perceptions in the workplace.

Asked what is key to addressing those perceptions and changing a culture, Carobolante says, “Realistically, standards can help people perceive things differently and foster recognition that some of their perspectives may not be as appropriate as they may intuitively believe. Also, since standards are developed by consensus…they include a multitude of perspectives.”

Elaborating, Carobolante notes: “By not being prescriptive, organizations can develop internal processes that would naturally integrate into their cultures and strengthen them.”

Also, she says that by developing a commitment to leveraging diversity through inclusion, “senior leaders can foster influencing development of a more inclusive culture
at work.”

Focusing on success factors and outcomes, activities to reach those outcomes, metrics to measure whether they have been reached or not, and assignment of roles, responsibilities and relationships so that activities actually get done are the best means to meet the challenges, Carobolante says.


Increasing visibility

At their respective airlines, Ourmieres-Widener and Foerster are ensuring that there are channels to increase the visibility of women in aviation careers and to build confidence and inclusiveness—Ourmieres-Widener, for instance, through the FlyShe ongoing initiative and Foerster by launching summits once or twice a year for the Lufthansa Group’s female leaders, featuring external speakers and discussions around questions such as “How can I be seen?”

Apprenticeships have been in place at Flybe for a decade, but Ourmieres-Widener says the airline “started to focus even more on girls’ awareness last year before we launched FlyShe. We did surveys,” she continues. “We asked little girls to draw a pilot and they all decided to draw a male pilot. That’s not a surprise, but it is a disappointment.”

It exemplifies why the visibility of women in aviation roles must increase to demonstrate that careers in the field are open to them as well, Ourmieres-Widener points out. “Females will not apply if they don’t see someone who is an inspiration for them,” she says. “Young girls cannot be what they cannot see.”

Ourmieres-Widener and Foerster also agree on what they want to emerge from the diversity debate.


6% - According to the Federal Aviation Authority’s 2017 Aeronautical Center report, of the 98,161 commercial pilots working in the United States just 6% are female


“I would like to see it acknowledged that diversity doesn’t happen by itself in a system that is not diverse enough already,” says Foerster. “I think diversity breeds diversity. Because of that, I would like to see commitment measures.”

Ourmieres-Widener believes the industry must be more creative and innovative in addressing the balance of diversity. “I think that we need to see changes, and we need to have the ambition to change this quickly or more quickly than people think we can change it,” she says.

“I’m not convinced that the only initiative we have to put on the table is to recruit more female pilots or more female engineers,” she continues. “For me, that’s too easy. That’s the pipeline for the future, but I think this industry needs to decide, and make changes now because there are many women who could be appointed in senior positions. And they are ready to take the challenge.”


Discussion on… ICAO Gender Equality

At ICAO’s 39th Assembly in 2016, a resolution was adopted promoting female participation in aviation. Accordingly, a Gender Equality Program has been developed together 
with a Gender Equality Implementation Plan. ICAO proposes to work in partnership with ICAO Member States, organizations of the United Nations, such as UNESCO, and other industry partners.

“The industry has not been very successful at providing an open, inclusive working environment for women,” says Dr. Fang Liu, ICAO Secretary General. “Gender parity is not only an ethical proposition but also a profitable one. These types of initiatives must be driven from the very top to succeed.”

In 2017, ICAO also mapped how its 2017-2019 Business Plan is contributing towards 15 of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), including SDG 5, which aims to end all forms of gender inequality and empower women and girls globally.


Discussion on… Soaring Through the Glass Ceiling

The industry is working on a report on diversity in the industry. Soaring Through the Glass Ceiling is a partnership of five organizations:

  • IATA
  • Aerospace Industries Association (AIA)
  • Airports Council
  • International (ACI) World
  • International Aviation Women’s Association
  • KornFerry – Civil
  • Aviation Practice

The study will include a global survey of, and interviews with, women and leaders in human resources (HR), organizations, and education; case studies of success stories within the industry; and a review of prior studies and literature on the advancement of women, both within and outside the industry.

According to Jane Hoskisson, Director, Learning and Development, IATA, says the survey “has been embraced by people globally.” This has been followed up by a number of qualitative interviews. The interviews, Hoskisson says, “gave us really clear indications of what might be done to unblock some of the issues surrounding gender parity in the industry.”


Discussion on… Practical solutions

Women account for fewer than 5% of airline CEOs around the globe and the overall representation of women in airline leadership roles remains woefully inadequate, write Michael Bell, Senior Client Partner, Civil Aviation Practice, Korn Ferry and Mariah Suarez, Senior Associate, Civil Aviation Practice, Korn Ferry.

Curiously, some of the airline industry’s most successful women CEOs came to the CEO role from outside the industry and, not being home grown, they don’t define themselves as airline executives nor their careers as airline-limited.

Without doubt, the global aviation and aerospace industry can and should do more to enable the advancement of women to the top of its organizations. To that end, in launching Soaring Through the Glass Ceiling, the partner organizations do not aim to report troublesome demographic statistics.

They are instead focused on identifying the root causes—the actual barriers—to advancement that may have hindered progress to date. And, of greater importance, the study will illuminate practices and policies which have been proven to enable gender diversity in leadership, in aviation/aerospace and related fields.

Perhaps, with a newfound focus on practical solutions, the global aviation and aerospace sector can ensure that women will be “soaring through the glass ceiling” and to significant heights well beyond for generations to come.


Alina Nassar,

President of the Board of Directors, International Aviation Womens Association

“Women are still underrepresented at board and executive levels, and unconscious bias affects the progression of women”

Christina Foerster,

CEO, Brussels Airlines

“Acknowledging that everybody’s different but you still have to be on the same team is what we’re working
on at the moment”

Christine Ourmieres-Widener,

CEO, Flybe

“Females will not apply if they don’t see someone who is an inspiration for them—young girls cannot be what they cannot see”


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