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This article was authored by Oliver Wyman and the International Aviation Womens Association.

The aviation industry continues to face challenges in attracting and retaining diverse employees. And below the surface, a wider gap exists: A substantial lack of women in leadership positions – an alarming situation that has persisted for far too long. To understand why there are so few women leaders in aviation, Oliver Wyman and the International Aviation Womens Association (IAWA) undertook a survey of 450 women and men in aviation leadership roles and interviewed successful female leaders. This research underscored critical barriers and potential solutions that could help redress the gender imbalance in aviation leadership. Three focus areas stood out in our research: escalating culture change, redesigning systems, and closing the sponsorship gap.

The aviation industry is not sustainable if more than 50 percent of the population doesn't see aviation as a successful career
Women aviation leader, Airline

Escalating culture change

Relative to men in the industry, women report more negative experiences, slower career advancement, and fewer opportunities to take on challenging roles tied to the bottom line. For example, a third of the women we surveyed report taking longer to reach leadership positions relative to their peer group, while more than 90 percent of the men surveyed advance more quickly or at the same pace as their peer group. By mid-career, women are more likely to consider leaving the industry and to be pushed out by negative experiences, rather than pulled away by new opportunities.

To counter this trend, we believe that aviation organizations and their senior leadership will need to commit to leadership gender balance as a priority, build a culture that deliberately and visibly includes women, and explicitly incent change. Adopting leadership models centered on gender-neutral traits, addressing bias, and building a bench of inclusive leadership at all levels would help ensure aviation welcomes and retains the best talent.

Why Women and Men Consider Leaving Aviation
Percentage of women and men

Redesigning systems

Aviation’s existing inclusion and diversity programming to date has not been very effective, and there is a clear disconnect between the intent and the impact of efforts designed to encourage and elevate women. A pressing issue is that women often are left out of conversations about what solutions would best address their unique career development needs. Underrepresented groups of women, such as working mothers, also must be better served by career development programming.

To deliver measurable improvement, women must have a greater presence in revamping aviation culture and ensuring leadership programs address real barriers. Top leaders then need to take responsibility for implementing, tracking, and championing new programming and be ready to quickly change tactics if initiatives are not delivering results.

Differing Perspectives on Women in Leadership
Survey responses by gender

Closing the sponsorship gap

No one achieves a senior leadership position without sponsors, who identify career-enhancing opportunities and advocate on the behalf of their sponsees. Unfortunately, 65 percent of the women we surveyed have never had a sponsor. And while women can be important role models for other women, specific male sponsorship matters as well: the most successful industry women we spoke with consistently pointed to powerful male sponsors as critical to their career trajectories.

Male and female aviation leaders agree that investment in sponsorship should be the top industry initiative to improve the retention and advancement of women
Oksana Bardygula, Vice President

Increasing the number of women at the top requires that aviation over-invest in formal sponsorship programs targeted at women. Senior leaders also need to be trained and encouraged to become more intentional and diverse in who they sponsor and their sponsorship activities.

Share of leaders who view themselves as role models for women
Percent of survey respondents by gender

A launchpad for today

Aviation’s current gender balance, particularly in leadership, limits the industry’s ability to attract and field the best possible talent. Industry leaders must commit to changing organizational and cultural norms and promoting environments where women feel welcomed, are valued, and can be successful. The industry cannot afford to continue to lag in this area. Without taking action now, aviation faces a shrinking talent pool and a loss of access to the innovation, creativity, and risk management that more diverse leadership provides. Now is the time to build better while building back.