Women in aviation: An untapped resource

Mar. 8, 2021

More than three quarters of SESAR 2020 research is carried out by men; a gender imbalance the programme is seeking to correct. But that requires some massive changes starting in the broader aviation and air traffic management industry where women remain underrepresented especially at the top. SESAR Joint Undertaking (SJU) Administrative Board member and ENAIRE Business Development Director Mariluz De Mateo García says there are very few women in leadership roles, and even flags a downward trend among female students in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers. “Having both women and men represented on boards is crucial for successful leadership and it is a joint responsibility for the companies in our sector to raise awareness about the positive effects that inclusion and diversity can deliver at executive levels.

A 20191 CANSO study into the gender gap in aviation found women hold 15-25% of leadership roles in air navigation, and cites lack of opportunities, unclear career paths and absence of role models as inhibitors to the advancement of women. CANSO members have put various initiatives in place to close the gender gap, for example involving more women in STEM roles is among the diversity objectives of UK NATS, which also adheres to the UK Women in Aviation Charter. "Encouragingly, more than half of CANSO’s leadership team is female" says Tanja Grobotek, Director Europe Affairs and SJU Board member: “In my 28 years’ career in aviation, what has changed is that today the benefits of diverse teams are widely recognised.

SJU Master Plan lead and Eurocontrol Senior Expert ATM Strategy and Planning Marie-France Deslandes believes more needs to be done on leadership: “I sometimes have the impression the industry is going backwards, with even fewer women in technical roles making it to leadership positions. At EUROCONTROL we’re aware of that and this is why inclusion is embedded in our recruitment strategy and why I engaged in the Diversity Initiative set up three years ago.” She says change needs to happen from the bottom up “from recruitment onwards, across all steps of organisations” to enable leader roles to be awarded on the basis of competence from a more gender balanced pool of experts. These initiatives are paying off, she says, noting a significant improvement in the number of women applicants for jobs, and the male-female ratio of new recruits.

This approach is evident among industry new entrants who have been quicker to recognise the value of diversity and inclusion. “In my company, there is no distinction between women and men,” says Fathia Ben Slama, SJU Project Leader and ALTYS Technologies Sensors Systems Product Manager. “Including women in the workforce allows the industry to benefit from talented and qualified human resources with different points of view which is necessary for innovation.” Fathia meets “more and more women involved in the aviation domain, especially the technical aspects. They increasingly occupy management and decision-making positions.

Established companies are having to play catch-up. DLR “is acting systematically as equal opportunity employer,” says Sigrun Matthes, SJU Project Leader and DLR Project Coordinator. “Increasing female leadership in projects is not an easy task. I feel such activities need to start from the participating organisations. Additionally, visibility to women in science should be fostered and supported, for example in conference committees, evaluation boards, advisory boards and scientific panels.” DLR has established an internal leadership programme, and related initiatives such as identifying child-care facilities.

With only 13 of SESAR JU’s 68 projects led by women, the programme risks missing out on the benefits that a more diverse workforce can offer. “While it is encouraging to see increasing numbers of women taking the lead in projects, we need to work harder on gender parity, not just at project level but also at the board level,” says Florian Guillermet, SJU Executive Director. “This will be a priority for the Joint Undertaking in the coming years. I think the positive is that things are changing, but that change also has to happen outside the programme in the wider aviation/ATM sector.”

(1) 2018/2019 Soaring Through the Glass Ceiling study conducted by CANSO together with AIA, A4A, ACI, IATA, IAWA and Korn Ferry