International Women’s Day takes place tomorrow (March 8). This year’s theme #BreakTheBias explores the systemic changes which are needed to remove bias from the workplace and within wider culture. Co-founder of the Women in Aviation & Aerospace Charter Sumati Sharma explains why its the system that needs changing, not women

Men dominate the senior ranks of aviation companies. According to IATA, just three per cent of CEOs at the top 100 airline groups are women, and women make up only five per cent of pilots and 10 per cent of engineers.

The number of women in top roles is increasing, but at the current rate of change – one percentage point per year between 2017 and 2020 – it will be 2056 before the airline industry reaches gender parity at the board level. In addition to this, between 2020 and 2021 the UK Office for National Statistics found that the pandemic worsened the gender pay gap. This simply isn’t good enough.

In my previous article, I recommended women at managerial level focus on confidence and finding sponsorship with senior advocates. But this International Women’s Day it’s time to recognise that it isn’t women who need to change. It’s the system.

With the theme for International Women’s Day 2022 being #BreakTheBias, we need to break down the barriers to women having successful careers in aviation and create “Lift Off To Leadership”.

Many are calling for this change. At the Oliver Wyman and Women in Aviation and Aerospace Charter’s inaugural Women in Aviation dinner, we asked C-suite executives what one thing could be done to create a step-change in gender diversity in aviation. The overwhelming answer was for more men to step up to own the issue and for men to stop seeing gender imbalance as a problem for women to solve.

Inclusive leadership starts at the top, and men dominate the boardroom

An inclusive culture supporting career advancement for all starts at the top. With men in most leadership positions, they have the power to set the standard for inclusion. This includes explicitly defining what inclusive leadership looks like and mandating training for all leaders. They can lead the way on how to build and benefit from diverse teams by recognising unique skills, needs, and lived experiences.

In addition, leaders must acknowledge and address bias — both explicit and implicit — and make systemic changes to remove the potential for bias that can adversely impact women’s careers. It is a huge positive that more senior leaders are starting to recognise bias and are shifting to inclusive and collaborative leadership styles that are regarded as more effective at building engagement and high-performing teams.

The more men who can sponsor women, the better

Some senior men sponsor women, acting as an advocate for them and taking on personal responsibility for their career success. But not all men. Additionally, we see most ad hoc sponsorships arise between individuals with a lot in common. In aviation, this will hold people from under-represented groups at an even greater disadvantage.

The alternative approach to sponsorship is one where an organisation makes it a requirement that senior figures act as sponsors to junior colleagues in under-represented groups. Sponsorship programmes should describe the role of and expectations for sponsors, help women cultivate and build sponsorship networks, and create opportunities for women to work with senior-level sponsors.

Grass roots efforts make a difference

At Oliver Wyman, we’ve established an industry-leading network called Men4Change. Formed in partnership with our women’s group, Men4Change engages men across our business and with our clients to encourage awareness, create dialogue, and instigate action to improve gender equity. Over the past three years, this grass-roots effort has embedded the concept of active allyship within the fabric of our business, offering a space to learn and practice what it means to be an active ally.

As Men4Change has grown, the focus has expanded to helping other networks get established and push forward once the easy wins are achieved. On International Men’s Day, I joined a workshop where Men4Change hosted senior sponsors from allyship networks across four organisations. Together, we worked through the challenges around making sustained progress on men’s engagement with creating gender equity. The discussions highlighted that the hard miles required to #BreakTheBias in the workplace need to be tackled head on: There are no quick fixes. However, whether on the topic of engaging the passive majority, or recognising and addressing intersectionality, committing time and effort to work through these challenges energised the group and surfaced new ideas on how to progress.

*This year’s International Women’s Day theme of #BreakTheBias is perfect for the change the industry needs to drive. The global aviation industry has a real opportunity to put inclusion at the heart of the restart post COVID-19 – an exciting period of change as aviation companies become more purpose led to attract and retain talent and customers through our next chapter of recovery and growth.

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