Global airlines have made some progress in improving gender diversity but the post-coronavirus recovery is an opportunity to hasten efforts to reach the still-distant target of equality in the male-dominated sector.
The International Air Transport Association established the 25by2025 initiative in 2019 to increase female representation – in senior aviation roles and in areas where women are traditionally underrepresented – by up to a quarter by 2025.
However, only half of its members have signed up so far. The industry body represents about 300 airlines.
In 2022, women constituted 42 per cent of employees at the signatory airlines. Women filled 28 per cent of senior leadership roles, up from 24 per cent in 2021.
There are only 28 female airline chief executives, up by about 20 per cent from 2021, according to the latest Iata data.
Women hold only a fifth of technical roles, a 7 per cent annual increase.
Airlines in Europe and Asia-Pacific are leading the way in placing more women in the cockpit. There are more than 1,000 new female pilots at airlines that have signed up for the initiative, an increase of 25 per cent compared with 2021.
However, women accounted for only 5 per cent of all pilots in 2022, the data shows.
RwandaAir chief executive Yvonne Makolo was this week appointed as chairwoman of the Iata board of governors. She is the first woman to assume this duty at Iata and will be in the post for a year.
“The aviation industry is continuing to improve on diversity. The ramp-up from the pandemic provides an opportunity to accelerate progress towards the 25by2025 targets,” Iata said in a video presentation.
The aviation industry has long been criticised for its poor track record in achieving gender balance.
While it is taking steps to address the issue, progress remains slow when it comes to top positions, as well as pilot, technical and engineering roles.
This week, Iata held a panel discussion on diversity and inclusion at its annual general meeting in Istanbul.
Asked about the underrepresentation of female pilots across the industry, JetBlue chief executive Robin Hayes said: “The pilot issue is one that we can and absolutely must do better on, and we're making progress but not the amount of progress that we need to make, and we have to be very intrepid.”
The New York-based airline has come up with programmes to help more women to train as pilots, he said.
Poppy Khoza, a director at the South African Civil Aviation Authority, said empowering women in aviation should start at the state level for the effect to trickle down to the industry.
“Until we get it right at the government level, it's very difficult to get it right at the levels below,” she said.
Governments must demand that operators “step up and make sure that we create a conducive environment for women not to be intimidated by industries such as civil aviation, make it so normal for young girls and women to want to enter the space without feeling small or intimidated”, Ms Khoza said.
Mr Hayes said hiring a diverse workforce was not enough and called on airlines to come up with initiatives to prepare more women for leadership roles.
Ms Khoza said the collective intelligence of men and women should be used to give organisations a boost and ensure better results, as neither is as effective on their own.
She said airlines must be asked why they were not signing up “for such a noble cause, a fundamental human right issue? Is it fair?”
The airline industry, which is suffering from a labour shortage, needs to make the profession more attractive, said Mr Hayes, and hire people from all walks of life, apart from ensuring it has a diverse leadership.
At the closing briefing of the Iata meeting this week, Ms Makolo said that while change was under way, it needed “to move a lot faster because we are way behind”.
For example, there are too few female pilot cadets and the industry needs to “demystify” the profession and introduce the idea to them at a young age, she said.
“It's not a woman problem. It's for all of us to fix it,” Ms Makolo said.