Women and employment in the aeronautical industry

In general, employment in the aeronautical sector in Europe is characterised by the following features:

  • Positive and sustained evolution of employment in recent years, with an above-average performance for European industrial sectors.
  • A high concentration of aeronautical activity and employment in five countries: France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Spain.

In France, the aerospace sector is an important economic driver of two regions: Nouvelle-Aquitaine and Occitanie. It encompasses 1,900 companies that employed 146,000 people as of late 2016, and represents 6% of non-agricultural wage employment and up to 20% of industrial employment in both regions. According to ESTACA’s website (www.estaca.fr), 37% of their recent graduates are oriented towards the aeronautical sector, and 98% of them find their first job within two months.

The role of women in the aeronautical industry has grown in recent years, although we are still a long way from what would be considered desirable.

In the UK, according to Philip Brien and Chris Rhodes in the House of Commons Library, on 8 November 2017, the aerospace industry had a turnover of £31 billion (about €35 billion) in 2016. The sector employs 95,000 people, with the largest number of jobs being located in the South West and East Midlands region. In the same document, Katherine Bennett, head of Airbus UK, said of Brexit that, “Future investments made by Airbus inevitably depend on the economic environment in which we operate. The company’s business model is based on our ability to move products, people and ideas around Europe free from restrictions.” This position was reaffirmed by Fabrice Bregier, the CEO of Airbus, who said in June 2017 that for Airbus it would be “very easy to build a new plant somewhere in the world for new projects.”

  • Highly qualified employment, with a high percentage of university graduates and a need for specific technical integrators (systems engineering). It is estimated that 38% of employees in the sector are university graduates, compared to the 18% that this group represents across all sectors in Spain.
  • Sustained increase in turnover in recent years, with future forecasts that suggest the same trend will continue.
  • The European aeronautical industry is mainly dominated by aircraft manufacturing, especially large commercial aircraft.
  • There has been a negative trend in productivity as a result of the sustained increase in production costs, among other factors.

One of the peculiarities of employment in the aeronautical industry is the evolution of the role of women in a working environment that used to be almost exclusively male.

As a starting point, the percentage of women who were enrolled in technical degrees in the 1975-1976 academic year was only 2% of the total. Similarly, women made up 5% of engineering graduates, with the other 95% being men.

By the 1998-1999 academic year, there was already an adequate integration of women in the university system, with women making up 54% of new students. In addition, women outnumbered men in all degrees, except for technical ones. And it is precisely in these degrees that there has been a plateau in the number of women in recent years, which does not bode well for the number exceeding 25% over the next few years.

One of the most representative scales that can be used to analyse the integration of women in engineering degrees and their incorporation into the labour market is that of membership figures.

Let’s take data from the Official Association of Industrial Engineers of Western Andalusia, in Spain, as an example. Until 1992, female members did not even represent 1% of the total. In 2002, this percentage had risen to 5.5%, and by 2008 it was 10%. However, over the course of the next six years, the percentage increased by just a few tenths.

Now let’s take pilots as an example. Continuing to look at the case in Spain, there are currently 6,000 Spanish pilots, according to data from the Spanish Union of Airline Pilots, of which only 198 are women. The figures are not much better on a world-wide level, as female pilots only make up 3% of this professional group. So what is the reason behind this imbalance? Almost instinctively, the first thing we tend to think about is the difficulty of combining this profession with a personal life; however, the large number of women found among airline flight attendants and cabin crew demonstrates that this is not the problem.

Due to the incipient growth in the number of passengers it is predicted that, in the next 20 years, more than 104,000 pilots will be needed in Europe, and about 610,000 will be needed worldwide, according to the study Pilot & Technician Outlook (2016). And women will play a crucial role in this.

According to some experts, the origin of this imbalance may be the increased pressure that women endure, leading to higher rates of self-criticism and self-demands, greater levels of insecurity, and high levels of stress, as they enter into conflict with gender identity/roles. The possibility of being a mother plays an important role here, as motherhood is considered to conflict with having a successful career.

According to Susan Chodakewitz, president of Tetratech, when we focus on technical and executive positions, the percentage of women in the sector drops from 25% to 10%. The remaining positions held by women are administrative.

In the newspaper Le Monde, Thierry Baril, general manager of Human Resources at Airbus, stated that companies want to recruit more women: “Companies should be a reflection of society. Mixed teams are synonymous with greater efficiency and cohesion, and are key to improving performance.”

The French media reports that some companies have set targets for hiring women. Airbus wants women to make up a third of its workforce. Safran wants a minimum of 25% of its engineers and executives to be women. By 2023, Thales aims for 40% of its general workforce and 30% of its middle management to be women.

The questions that have to be asked are simple: Why aren’t women attracted to the aeronautical sector? Alternatively, why do they leave this sector? It is difficult to give a concrete answer. Perhaps it is a combination of several factors, such as gender stereotypes, technical pigeonholing and a lack of role models.

What is certain is that there is a clear global ambition and need to work on development policies to strengthen the role of women in the aeronautical industry.



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