Airline Leaders Reflect on Cultivating a Future Workforce of Women in Aviation

Women in aviation

Although women have been a part of the aviation industry since its inception, there have been many hurdles when it comes to both representation and advancement.  In fact, the aviation industry, similar to many STEM industries, is seeking to balance its workforce by encouraging more women to embrace careers in aviation. During the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s 2019 Aviation Summit, held in Washington D.C. this week, the topic of diversifying the workforce was a hot issue for many speakers, and coincided with International Women’s Day.

Women aviation leaders took the stage from American Airlines, Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, Southwest Airlines and the National Air and Space Museum for a lively discussion moderated by Elena Avila, EVP of Airlines for Amadeus. Together, the female leadership for these aviation organizations collectively bring over 100 years of experience and much advice for a younger generation. With an aging workforce that needs to find talent to address a shortage of pilots, mechanics, and air traffic controllers, the panelists discussed why recruitment of a younger generation of women in aviation is so important.

“Diversity is a huge focus for us because diverse companies are better performing companies,” Catherine Dyner, senior vice president and CIO of Air Canada told the audience. Seeking that diversity requires tapping into the interest of girls and making sure that along the way, they don’t receive subtle messages that turns them away from IT-related careers. “Tech is cool and [it’s] an exciting time to be in this industry,” Dyner states.

Another panelist, Kathleen Wayton, senior vice president and CIO, Technology at Southwest Airlines says its important that young girls see the possibility of what they can be early on. “You have to see it to be it.” From images in main stream media to dolls, there should be reflection of women in aviation and technology related roles.

That’s why it is so important that the National Air and Space Museum is telling stories about the history of aviation that highlight women. “We have to change the representation of women and ensure that we are telling all the stories,” said Ellen Stofan, director of the museum. “Everyone who comes into the museum can say that is a career that I can go into and it’s an opportunity for me.”

Maya Leibman, executive vice president and CIO of American Airlines agrees that accessibility at an early age is critical to encourages a more diverse workforce. “It’s really about being focused on what you are recruiting for and intentional on how you go about it.” American Airlines has partnered with an underserved high school in the Dallas Independent School District (ISD) and a local community college to allow student access to educational curriculum, kickstarting the process of achieving an associate’s degree in a technical field when they compete high school.

However, they found that they had to reach out to students even earlier. “We are going back and working with girls 9-12 years old and teaching them about technology and coding. We need to get to these girls before they start getting subtle or not so subtle messages about what fields they should go into and build their confidence and abilities. It’s a springboard for future careers,” Leibman told the audience.

“We also can’t forget about the future of aviation and technology. When will we see supersonic flight? How will AI impact aviation? We need to inspire kids and get them excited about this field,” Stofan concluded.

For women in aviation already who are seeking more leadership positions, Elena Avila, the panel’s moderator shared her advice, “Just say yes.” Avila says that she encourages women to be brave and stretch themselves for new opportunities, even if they are not in the plan. “Be brave and be flexible.”

For more information on International Women’s Day and how work forces are #better4balance, click here to follow the conversation.