While the total number of women pilots has increased over the past six decades, women flight instructors, commercial pilots and air transport pilots have increased at a rate of 1% per decade. One. Percent. Per decade.

There has been no significant change in the representation of women in the aviation workforce, according to a 2021 landmark report, ‘Women in Aviation: A Workforce Report,’ issued by Women in Aviation International (WAI). Its author, Dr. Rebecca Lutte, Associate Professor, Aviation Institute at the University of Nebraska, was a member of the Women in Aviation Advisory Board (WIAAB) and her data is instrumental in illuminating the problem aviation has. 

Women’s participation in the aviation/aerospace workforce is a mixed bag of competing statistics, all of which point to a huge problem. 


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Credit: Captain Jenny Beatty

Female pilots make up about 64,979 of total FAA-certified pilots, or 9%, despite a 52% increase over 2017. Similarly, in other disciplines including aviation maintenance technicians and flight engineers, women account for less than 10% of the overall workforce, despite a 20% increase since 2017. 

In India, which leads the world in women pilots, 12.4% of pilots are women – twice the global average, according to an Aerviva Aviation Consultancy survey. That begs the question about what India, another male-dominated society, is doing and what we can learn from its experience. More important, we need to know what these women pilots experience on the job.

The key factors contributing to underrepresentation cited by both WAI and WIAAB include: 

  • “negative workplace culture to include implicit bias, discrimination and sexual harassment; 
  • work rules and how they challenge work/life/family balance; 
  • lack of women in leadership positions; 
  • a need for leadership commitment to diversity and inclusion; and 
  • a need for increased youth outreach.” 

Despite this, there are thousands of women in the executive ranks as listed in Women Executives in Aviation, Aerospace & Defense. Female CEOs represent 19% of total aerospace and defense CEOs in the US, according to a study, ‘Soaring Through the Glass Ceiling: Taking the Global Aviation and Aerospace Industry to New Heights Through Diversity and Inclusion, sponsored by the International Aviation Women’s Association (IAWA).

By comparison, CNBC reported the number of female CEOs in the Fortune 500 rose to a record high in 2022 at 44 or 10% of the largest corporations in the US. Aviation seems to be doing better than the rest of corporate America. Still, women have yet to achieve true equity with their male colleagues in the C-suite: Only 21% of C-suite leaders at US companies are women, according to a September 2021 report from LeanIn.org and McKinsey.  

WIAAB Progress Toward Permanent Board

The WIAAB recently made strides in one of its most important recommendations – making the Board a permanent structure in the aviation/aerospace industry overseeing discrimination, bias and sexual harassment. Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), supported by Deb Fischer (R-NE), Kirsten Sinema (I-AZ), Jerry Moran, (R-KS) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) introduced legislation in March to do just that. 

This is important because in this Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization year, workforce initiatives, including the recommendations from the WIAAB and the Youth Access to Aviation Jobs in America Task Force, can easily be included. Even better, WIAAB and YIATF task force members report legislators are very receptive to such initiatives. 

While the proposed legislation must be recognized as a giant step, it is only part of the solution and far from assured as the legislation passes through the budget cycle, especially for new funding sources for training. 

Youth Access to Aviation Jobs in America Task Force (YIATF) members, including the newly formed Aviation Education Program Alliance, have been working closely with those on Capitol Hill concerned about the workforce crisis. They are complemented by the usual aviation alphabet groups – Aeronautical Repair Station Association, Aerospace Industries Association, Aviation Technical Education Council, National Business Aviation Association, Airlines for America, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Aircraft Electronics Association – who know that workforce shortages are stunting growth and progress in aviation operations, repair and manufacturing while threatening safety, competitiveness and national security.  

Culture Remains Top Barrier to Diversity

It is this permanent board that is perhaps the most important recommendation to come out of two task forces because it addresses the core reason we do not have more diversity and why it is so difficult to attract and retain talent. The ‘Breaking Barriers for Women in Aviation Flight Plan for the Future,’ cited culture as a top concern which underlies most, if not all, of its recommendations. 

“The evidence is overwhelming: Real change in the representation and advancement of women in aviation requires culture change,” said the WIAAB report. This is sad since women were found to be attracted to aviation as a challenge but fear its old-boy-network culture. 

The WIAAB report transformed women’s experiences from anecdotal to solid evidence of a toxic culture. The report confirmed what too many women already know. Women are not supported in what some see as the “toxic masculinity” of the modern workplace. Complaints are met with retaliation when reporting bias or harassment or even safety violations, meaning the human resources department is part of the problem because it protects the company not workers as federal law requires. 

Those who report are not only ignored but see their perpetrators rewarded and promoted. A growing number of lawsuits filed and won by women against their aviation employers illustrates the industry may talk a good game, but it is far from reality. Airlines love to tout the recognition they receive for a great place to work but the disconnect between women’s experience with fear and retribution and such accolades call into question the value of these kudos or whether it is just the industry’s powerful PR machine at work. 

The report found more than half of women in the industry have considered leaving citing implicit bias, discrimination, lack of career opportunities and lack of work/life balance.

“Research confirms that gender bias, discrimination, and sexual harassment are significant issues in aviation,” the WIABB report said. In a 2018 survey of Women in Aviation International members, 62% of respondents indicated that sexual harassment remains a significant problem in the industry while 71% reported that they experienced sexual harassment in the workplace or another professional aviation setting. Some 81% reported having witnessed sexual harassment.

The experience of women begs the question of what is happening to other diverse employees and is the reason any permanent board should represent all diversities, not just women because it is all a part of the same white-male-old-boy-network culture that constitutes the major barrier to attracting and retaining rich talent.


A Program for Diversity, Sexual Harassment

Women are not alone in calling out aviation’s toxic culture. In a startling piece, Dr. Tony Kern, founding principal and CEO of Convergent Performance said the sexual harassment in the industry must stop. Women have many male allies saying the same thing, but these men and women are stopped by a culture that relies on fear and retaliation to keep them quiet. 

That makes another WIAAB recommendation of paramount importance to creating a Just Culture and that is establishing an industry-wide independent reporting program for incidents of bias, discrimination and sexual harassment similar to the Aviation Safety Reporting System. The difference is that it must be more than a data-gathering exercise but come with action against companies and government agencies who perpetuate the culture we have today. A third recommendation would make diversity programs part of the industry’s safety management systems. This might move employee diversity groups, now suspected of being little more than window dressing, into the realm of real corporate culture change. 

As legislation moves through Congress, it is important for the entire industry to be involved by voicing support for legislation including the recommendations from both the WIAAB and the YIATF reports. Our diverse populations and the industry future success deserve nothing less. 


Gender of Pilots https://www.jennybeatty.com/statistics

Women Executives in Aviation, Aerospace & Defense – Future Aviation/Aerospace Workforce News (futureaviationaerospaceworkforce.com)