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What Wall Street Can Learn From Asian Airlines’ Diversity Problem

Only 5% of pilots are women

“Diversity without inclusion leads to chaos.” – Nicholas Pearce

This article originally appeared in Fortune on April 7, 2016.

By Nicholas Pearce

Asia’s rapid growth of air travel has created 226,000 new pilot jobs over the next two decades, prompting the airline industry to tap into new talent to keep up with demand: women, who currently account for only about 5% of captains and copilots worldwide. While demand in Asia is prompting this push for diversity, it is truly a global phenomenon.

It’s worth noting, however, that the pilot shortage and the extreme lack of gender diversity among pilots (roughly the same percentage as women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies) are separate issues. One reflects the need for an industry to hire more people. The other reflects the need for an industry to look at its norms, policies, culture, and other barriers—in other words, its lack of inclusion—that may discourage talented women from entering the profession, and ultimately, advancing to positions of leadership within it.

Simply hiring more women because of an acute demand for more people without addressing inclusion is likely to spell disaster. For the airlines in Asia, recruiting more women into an industry that might not have examined its culture could exacerbate some of the issues that are already present in the workplace and act as barriers to entry for women. Recruiting people is one thing, but the challenge of retaining and advancing them is another—just ask corporate America about how difficult it is to racially diversify the C-Suite.

The Asian pilot shortage, then, is a cautionary tale for other industries—from Wall Street to Silicon Valley to construction and engineering -- in which women face unspeakable challenges in order to aspire, persist, and advance in traditionally male-dominated professions. Diversifying organizations and industries without commitment to eliminating the obstacles to inclusion is short-sighted and can actually serve to undermine well-intended diversity efforts.

The first set of challenges is around the talent pipeline and the barriers that often serve to prevent women and girls from even aspiring to the cockpit in the first place. It is often said that people cannot be what they cannot see. And despite the pioneering work of women like Amelia Earhart and Harriet Quimby in the aviation field, few women are currently showing up as role models for young girls on Career Day. Just as there is a dearth of female aviator role models for (young) women, the story is similar for women throughout the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professions. The lack of high-visibility women in these roles could short-circuit the aspirations of talented young women who are capable and would seriously consider this career option with just the slightest encouragement. Greater intentionality in recruiting and pipeline development is a necessary, but insufficient step in drawing interest from groups that are underrepresented in the profession.

The second set of challenges deals with the psychological hurdles that thwart women who do aspire to become airline pilots at the training stage. While many point to the high costs of civilian flight training as a barrier for women, cost is equally a barrier for men. Many aspiring aviators opt for military flight training to circumvent the cost barrier, but women make up only about 5% of the U.S. Air Force’s pilots, which suggests that cost alone does not explain the dearth of women pilots. What is at work, however, is the insidious and defeating psychology of the training environment.

Given the fact that most pilots and flight instructors—whether military or civilian—are male, women flight trainees are inundated with the subtle message that they are attempting to enter a “male profession,” in which men are better-suited for success (despite an Army study that suggests that women make safer helicopter pilots). Research shows that when women are engaging in tasks at which men are generally perceived as being superior (without regard to actual ability), women demonstrate less confidence and also believe that they must achieve at a higher level than men just to be considered average. When individuals have more confidence in their competence on career-relevant tasks, they are more likely to persist in their profession. So even if the aviation industry is successful in attracting the interest of would-be women pilots, their persistence in the profession is an equally important success metric.

Still another set of challenges encompasses the social and structural barriers to the persistence and advancement of women who actually are pilots, both at the industry level and in the workplace. Among them is a salient gender bias in the traditional division of roles within the industry: Men belong in the cockpit and women as flight attendants. Many female captains have observed that the long hours, time away from family, and job stress weighs on them and likely deters other women from entering the profession in the first place. And while individual organizations may not be able to unilaterally change professional norms at the industry level, getting it right at the organizational level through more generous maternity leave policies or opportunities for flex-time can create a competitive advantage in the war for talent.

For Asian airlines, like traditionally male-dominated industries and professions everywhere, the solution is not to simply go out and recruit more women. Diversity without inclusion leads to chaos. It is a much more complex problem that demands greater attention to the sociological, psychological, and organizational barriers that may be keeping highly qualified women away from the industry in the first place—and may be discouraging those few women in the profession from persisting and advancing to the highest levels of leadership.

- Nicholas Pearce serves as an award-winning clinical assistant professor of management & organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and a Public Voices Faculty Fellow. 

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