Over the past few years, international movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp have sparked much debate and discussion on issues like sexism in the workplace across all industries, including the aviation sector, and business leaders are now being urged to ensure there are equal opportunities for all, irrespective of gender.

In the aviation industry, this has forced companies to improve their policies and attract more women to their workforce. A testament to this problem is data from a 2018 report by CAPA, which found only 4% of pilots in the US are female. The non-pilot positions in the industry had only about 30% women in 2018 according to the Federation Aviation Administration.

In a bid to turn the tide, executives from Virgin Atlantic and easyJet turned to the World Aviation Festival held in London between 5 and 6 September and called for stepped-up efforts to attract more women and people from ethnic backgrounds, which would help solve looming shortages of pilots, mechanics and top managers in this traditionally male-dominated sector.

Director of scheduling at EasyJet Sophie Dekkers stressed that airport and airline companies must change their focus from filling “quotas and just talking about diversity to actually creating an environment where everyone can be themselves, regardless of who they are, and encourage diversity in thought, which will help generate more ideas and innovation.”

In addition, vice president of cabin at Virgin Atlantic Estelle Hollingsworth said that to achieve a diverse workforce, it is important to ensure current employees are taken care of. In an effort to improve employee wellbeing on all levels, the company recently launched a manifesto called ‘Be Yourself’, which aims to promote inclusivity. “The manifesto is about increasing understanding about what it feels like to feel included, and what it feels like to feel excluded,” she stated. “It’s also about genuinely a sense of belonging that goes beyond inclusion.”

Still a long way up to achieve equality

Talking about encouraging women to join the aviation industry, Dekkers admitted that while a lot has already been done, there is still a lot of work to do. She added that the issue should “not just be seen as an HR initiative, but should be a responsibility of every company in the aviation sector.”

Welcoming this statement, Hollingsworth added: “Diversity is something that we absolutely live and breathe at Virgin Atlantic, though we do not always get it right. But calling it out when we are not getting it right and making sure that is taken seriously is our business agenda.”

Earlier this year Virgin Atlantic achieved its goal of having 42% women in its senior managerial roles, however, the board often is still unbalanced with only two women, said Hollingsworth. She added that the obstacle lies in the lack of role models in those positions and the company has pledged to address this issue more in-depth. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” she said.

Dekkers herself told how she experienced first-hand demotivation from male colleagues in her career, but when EasyJet appointed Carolyn McCall as its CEO, she was inspired.

Getting to the root of the dearth of women in aviation

Dekkers said that companies must go beyond just encouraging female pilots and focus on “getting the next generation take up careers in the aviation industry.” As a part of its initiatives, EasyJet has been making visits to schools to inform students of the prospects available in the industry.

“Students automatically assume if you’re going to work for an airline, you’re either cabin crew or pilots and don’t think that they can have an amazing career doing lots of different things within the aviation industry,” Dekkers argued.

Hollingsworth added that aviation companies must actively recruit from diverse demographics – even if that entails calling out to their respective recruitment companies. “Headhunters can quite easily say ‘Sorry we couldn’t find anybody else,’ so we’d have a 100% white or male [applications] in the long list and in the past we have gone back saying it is not acceptable and ‘until you give us a diverse long list, we’re not going to work with you.’

“I would definitely encourage everybody to be really strong around pushing back if you don’t get that answer, because actually diversity is out there, make sure you look in the right places,” Hollingsworth added.

Companies are offering more support for LGBT+ employees

Diversity does not just mean being inclusive for women and those from various ethnic backgrounds. In these respects, aviation companies are encouraging and being more supportive towards current and potential LGBT+ employees.

Virgin Atlantic, for instance, has an employee resource network called GB Pride aimed at bringing the community together, ensuring managers are implementing current policies and introducing new necessary policies the company might be lacking. “We had a gap in our transgender policy – we didn’t have one, and we worked with our network to actually build and write that policy,” Hollingsworth said.

What measures are airlines taking to boost diversity?

Airline companies are increasingly taking initiatives to get more women on-board at all levels.  For example, Virgin Atlantic and EasyJet recently revised their compulsory make-up policy and made it optional for female staff.

To ensure more women are encouraged to take up senior roles, Virgin Atlantic also has a programme called Springboard, specifically targeting females in entry-level positions who want to enhance their skills and eventually move up into leadership roles.

Similarly, EasyJet collaborated with non-profit organisation Shine, where female staff are mentored and encouraged to improve their career, as well as life outside of work. This helped them gain confidence and apply for senior roles which they wouldn’t have aimed for otherwise, Dekkers said. Furthermore, in order to get more female pilots to join the company, EasyJet launched the Amy Johnson Flying Initiative.

Both the companies now offer flexible working hours, making the company culture more conducive and supportive towards women.

Dekkers noted that EasyJet will dedicate the next 12 months to increasing women in its offices across all roles, making it ‘the year of inclusion.’ “There have been various studies that companies with more women are more successful and we want to tap into those great ideas,” she said.

Hollingsworth summed the issue and concluded by saying: “There is no business case for inclusion and diversity because actually, it should be a prerequisite for any organisation – especially in aviation.”