FINN editor-in-chief Alan Peaford reflects on the progress made in bringing women into the workforce – and what more needs to be done.

Fifteen years ago I was able to help my old friend Liz Moscrop with her book, The Hundred Greatest Women in Aviation.

It is a fascinating tale featuring some amazing exploits of the pioneering female aviatrices who took up some amazing challenges while not only facing the aeronautical difficulties but also cultural and family opposition.

Whenever I was promoting the book, I nearly always got the same response: “What? Are there 100 women in aviation?”

I suspect that today the question might not be asked – even jokingly. It is after all a serious issue. And more importantly the issue of gender equality has risen far higher in the industry’s consciousness than it did over the past century.

Long way to go

But clearly there is still a long way to go before it stops being a special issue.

Last month I was fascinated to attend the Women in Aviation conference sessions at the Bahrain Airshow.

Senior female executives, engineers and pilots debated just why there is such an imbalance in gender.

You might think that the Middle East is the last place on earth where gender equality could ever happen. But in fact, the reverse is true. In fact, women make up over 50 per cent of STEM students in the Middle East, well above the global average.

Daisy Omissi, VP external communications civil aerospace at Rolls-Royce, cited McKinsey research that shows companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 per cent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the bottom.

I did a fact check – and it is correct. Meanwhile companies with more than 30 per cent female executives are more likely to outperform companies that don’t, according to research from academics from the Universities of Glasgow and Leicester.

So it’s a bit of a no-brainer.

Having grown up in a family with strong women – my mother was an early pioneer in the computer business, latterly with a global oil company, while my sister rose through the ranks of nursing to hospital management – I have never doubted a woman’s capability to manage, make tough decisions and also be empathetic with a workforce – a communication skill that can make business work better.

So why is it taking so long so see organisations change their attitudes … or perhaps their recruitment techniques.

Flawed pilot assessments

This year at Farnborough Airshow I had the chance to interview Sir Stephen Hillier. Currently the chairman of the UK Civil Aviation Authority, he was previously the most senior officer in the Royal Air Force as Air Chief Marshal and chief of staff.

He had been puzzled about why a far higher proportion of women than men were failing the tests to be fighter pilots. They were more than capable of doing the flying. But it turned out, the questions had been written by men. “The assessment was flawed,” he said. The discovery is leading to a new assessment tool geared to both sexes.

It is not just the UK where male-dominated military may not realise the advantages a greater female presence can bring. In the US, Boeing’s president of business development for Defense, Space & Security (BDS) and Boeing Global Services (BGS), Heidi Grant talks of what she describes as ‘the brass ceiling’.

Brass ceiling

“As a US Defense Department civilian for 32 years, working in a military environment, when I would go to meetings, my senior military colleagues would attend engagements wearing their uniform with rank insignia, which are brass. It was very clear by their uniform ‘brass’, patches, and pins, their background and experience. When they entered a room with their uniform on, there is an instant shared trust, bond, credibility and respect based on their earned ‘brass’. However, for a career civilian, in a business suit, you don’t have the same level of instant recognition and bond,” she said.

Other female speakers holding senior positions talk about walking into meetings with male colleagues and customers and expected to make the tea.

Grant had her own way of pushing against the ceiling.

“I went through deployment training, to include weapons qualification, to ensure seamless integration as a civilian in a contested environment. I learned ‘military speak’ and became skilled at ‘translating’ their requirements into a narrative or language that civilian decision makers could understand and support urgent needs.

“Over time, I earned the bond, trust, and credibility need to best support the warfighters—while I was in a business suit. I was invited into the room, the majority of the time with of all military, and offered a prominent seat at the table. The highlight of my career was when I was appointed the first civilian director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, a passion of mine to support building international military partner capability, and a leadership role that had previously been only given to three-star military officers.

“If you have a goal, understand what it takes to achieve it, and show your value, you can open doors. Once they’re open, it’s up to each person to decide how hard they want to work to get to the next ones. We need to ensure we are not creating our own artificial barriers,’ Grant said.

“While opportunity isn’t equal in all parts of the world, overall things are probably better today than I’ve seen at any other time throughout my career. My recommendation is to find passion for mission, push yourself out of your comfort zone, continue to build your diverse network, and never stop learning.”


One particular group that has been outstanding in pushing the argument for more female pilots has been the Ninety-Nines. Named after the 99 original charter members of an organisation put together by Amelia Earhart in 1931, the group now spreads in chapters around the world. I have flown with the 99s in the UK and the Middle East, and have seen their members argue their case on conference platforms across the continents.

Females make up only around 5 per cent of the global flightdeck crew – and the figure is far lower in many countries.

But things are changing. Women in Aviation International reported in 2020 that some 14.2 per cent of student pilots are women as of 2020, rising from just 9.8 per cent three years only. And that growth appears to be accelerating with many academies reporting today more than a quarter of new cadets are women.

Role models are vital. Being seen can make all the difference.

I recall in the 1980s on a small regional turboprop going to Rotterdam from Southend. A lady was at the entrance checking boarding passes. When all 40 of us were seated she spoke on the PA. “Gentlemen,” (it was primarily oil company executives after all) “it looks like our captain hasn’t arrived and I know how important it is that you all get there on time,” at which point she stepped back onto the flight deck (or ‘cockpit’ as it used to be called) and took the left-hand seat to fly us. There was some murmurings, but a round of applause soon followed after we safely, and perfectly, touched down in the Netherlands.

First female Bahraini Captain

One modern 99s trailblazer is Yasmeen Fraidoon, Gulf Air’s first female Bahraini Captain, who rose through the ranks after joining the airline in 2008 as a second officer.

She told the Bahrain event how her eight-year-old daughter had been bought books about aviation from the time she could read. The family was going on holiday and her daughter was excited. “What are you looking forward to most?” Yasmine asked the little girl. “Seeing the Captain when he is on board,” the youngster replied.

“But you see me every day,I’m a captain,” her mum said. “No mum, I mean a real captain,” The audience laughed but the serious point is how do we portray aviators in our magazines, our books, our recruitment posters? It is horrifying how many, even today, have the flight deck as men and the cabin crew mostly female. Let’s get that changed straight away.

The audience laughed but the serious point is how do we portray aviators in our magazines, our books, our recruitment posters? It is horrifying how many, even today, have the flight deck as men and the cabin crew mostly female. Let’s get that changed straight away.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, amongst most aviation occupations, women make up less than 20 per cent of the workforce and for the last sixty years, the introduction of women into the industry has been largely stagnant. The picture is similar in Europe. According to EU government research 22 per cent of aviation workers in Europe are female.

Reasons for under-representation

The Women in Aviation Advisory Board in the USA published a report earlier this year identifying several reasons why women remain under-represented in aviation and aerospace. The list makes for disturbing reading and includes male-dominated culture, widespread sexual harassment and discrimination, financial barriers and a lack of gender-specific support systems.

Chair of the advisory board, Heather Wilson is reported as saying: “The biggest barrier that discourages women from entering and staying in aviation careers is culture – and that is the hardest to change.

“Women don’t feel like they belong. Changing culture requires consistent leadership commitment over time and thousands of large and small actions across government and industry. It’s hard work. It’s time to get started.”

There is so much work to be done. The elephant in the room is of course maternity and balancing motherhood with work. But it can be done. We need to get over our old-way of thinking and get to be more flexible.

IATA has made the whole issue of gender balance a priority.


Its 25by2025 global initiative aims to change the gender balance within the aviation industry to have 25 per cent female representation by 2025. It doesn’t sound a hard target, but time will tell if the global airlines respond and begin that cultural change.

“This voluntary initiative is an initial step to making the aviation industry more gender balanced. With a large number of airlines and industry partners already committing to 25by2025, we are paving the way for an industry that recognises female talent and creates opportunities for women in which they can thrive,” said IATA’s Jane Hoskisson, director for talent, learning, engagement and diversity.

IATA itself celebrates a major milestone when the dynamic Yvonne Makolo, the CEO of Rwandair, takes over as chair of the associations board of governors. As well as being the first female chair, she is also the first person of colour to hold the role. As Yvonne said to me in a recent interview, “I was honoured and surprised. Surprised mostly wondering why it has taken so long”.

Maybe, with all these changes, with more women leaders we will make this industry the model it deserves to be.
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