Created in 1939 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to commemorate Orville Wright’s birthday, National Aviation Day has been celebrated annually on August 19 with air shows and related extravaganzas. These are exciting days for aerospace researchers, aviation enthusiasts and aspiring jobseekers. Many were inspired earlier this year by NASA’s exploration of Mars and the independent suborbital flights of Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. Closer to Earth, commercial drones are increasingly available and relatively affordable for hobbyists and students. Workforce opportunities are expanding for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (drone) operators to serve areas like environmental monitoring and agricultural surveys, utility and infrastructure inspection, remote filming and photography, commercial logistics and delivery, as well as in search and rescue operations such as those in the recent building collapse in Surfside, FL.
Demand for qualified pilots, engineers and mechanics is surging. Forecasts suggest that airlines will need to hire 800,000 pilots in the next 20 years due to a rapidly recovering travel market and a wave of retirements on the horizon. Add to this the growth in UAV applications and these gaps will only be met if the field becomes more welcoming to the widest community possible. Despite iconic figures like Amelia Earhart, Sally Ride, Rosie the Riveter, and the women of Hidden Figures, disparities in race, class and gender in aviation and aerospace fields remain vast.
Consider these statistics. Fewer than 2% of American commercial airline captains and only 5% of pilots at any rank are women. This may be partly attributed to the legacy of pilots coming to civilian aviation from the military, where women have a more arduous path to professional training and advancement; active-duty pilots in the US Air Force are 88% white and 6% women. However, even remote pilot licenses, which began being offered just a few years ago, are held predominantly by men (only 6% are women). Flight instructors? Also about 6% women.
Beyond the cockpit, related fields in aviation are similarly monochrome. Among certified aviation mechanics, only 2.5% are women according to the FAA. Aerospace engineers comprise 12.5% women and 71% of them are white. Diversity statistics improve slightly for air traffic controllers, 22% of whom are women (with 99% pay equity!). Yet all of these numbers have remained essentially static for years.
The disparities begin not just in the military context but also in universities. Student enrollment in engineering majors remains majority male, with large gender gaps in aviation and aerospace programs at the top-ranked schools. Only 15% of all engineering doctoral degrees granted to women in 2019 were in aerospace, the smallest of any discipline.
Media and popular culture celebrate the “Top Gun” story of mavericks taking to the skies (see also the wealthy men behind the priapic Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic flights this summer). Beyond a few high-profile roles for Jodie Foster, Sandra Bullock and select women in the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, major studios could do much more to promote path-breaking female characters in film and television. Visual representation of the aviation industry has been highly gendered for years, from TV and print advertisements of previous generations to social media campaigns in the present day. Organizations hoping to change the culture must consider the imagery in their recruitment materials: fewer rockets, more humans, greater breadth of representation in teamwork and leadership positions. We know that interest in aviation careers is often sparked by experiences as early as elementary school. Providing role models for girls to imagine themselves as pilots, astronauts or aerospace engineers could make a powerful difference in years to come.
Strategies for diversifying the field in commercial, military and academic aerospace programs can be adopted from those tested in other industries:
- Improve hiring practices: Ensure gender-inclusive language in job descriptions, advertise and recruit from non-traditional channels, be intentional about selecting a diverse slate of candidates.
- Expand family leave policies and other inclusive benefits: Providing paid family leave for men and women will improve the workplace environment and retention for all.
- Attend to retention and promotion: Fair evaluation, effective whistleblower policies, and robust mentoring programs can help improve the advancement of women and other underrepresented groups.
- Ensure that equipment, uniforms and cockpit design can accommodate a range of body sizes and types: Avoid putting a mission in jeopardy for lack of well-fitting gear.
- Make diversity data transparent and hold leaders accountable for results.
- Partner with special-interest organizations: Women in Aviation International, Women in Aerospace, International Society of Women Airline Pilots, Women Who Drone, Women and Drones Network, Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, Latino Pilots Association, and the National Gay Pilots Association will be allies in improving the climate for women and under-included groups.
- Use advocacy tools and engage stakeholders within established agencies to gain policy makers’ attention: In June 2021, the Subcommittee on Aviation of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure held a hearing on “Bridging the Gap: Improving Diversity and Inclusion in the U.S. Aviation Workforce,” and the FAA established a Women in Aviation Advisory Board in 2020 to promote education, training and mentorship for women and girls to pursue careers in aviation.
At the University of California, CITRIS and the Banatao Institute will celebrate National Aviation Day by announcing the CITRIS Aviation Prize, a competition for student teams to develop proposals for autonomous flight of a drone within the Northern California region. Momentum is accelerating to change the face of aviation and aerospace engineering in the future. But much more innovation and leadership will be required to inspire the range of minds and talents needed to advance equitable aviation and space exploration for the next generation.