Diversity, equality and inclusion in aviation: why we must do better

Milena Bowman

Milena Bowman, Executive Manager Airspace, Systems and Procedures EUROCONTROL’s Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre

Making aviation sustainable needs the three Ps – people, planet and profit. Diversity and inclusion is an important part of the picture, writes Milena Bowman, Executive Manager Airspace, Systems and Procedures at EUROCONTROL's Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre (MUAC).

The three Ps needed for sustainable aviation are enough qualified people to do the work; a green planet, and profitable businesses that thrive in a dynamic and changing economic environment. Working on diversity and inclusion is important to the 3Ps, with some of the negative effects of diversity needing to be considered, along with the current legal framework, and ongoing activities to achieve efficiency in these efforts at the European level.

During the 2023 Global Aviation Gender Summit, ICAO estimated that if women’s participation in aviation continued at its current pace of increase, it would take 450 years to achieve gender parity. We clearly do not have this amount of time to waste.

The industry is suffering labour shortages, which projections show will get worse. But efforts to attract, train and retain a diverse range of people must go well beyond gender: migrant waves and an open labour EU market have increased ethnic and cultural diversity in many societies; people with disabilities; neurodiverse people; members of the LGBTQ communities, all should form an essential part of the aviation workforce.

Global Aviation Gender Summit 2023

The shortage of qualified labour is plaguing the current labour market, especially in aviation where certification processes take a relatively long time. A more diverse workforce can achieve better results if there are equal opportunities and a culture of inclusion to incorporate the richness of knowledge among employees with different backgrounds. At the same time, a more inclusive sector will be a more attractive sector to the new generation. Therefore, it is strategically important to build a setting where best practices are exchanged, shared learning is tailored to air traffic management (ATM) and the sector is seen as one standing for inclusion, diversity and innovation, and one that does not tolerate discrimination in any form.

Promoting and supporting diversity in the workplace is an important aspect of good people management. It is about valuing everyone in an organisation as an individual, so it is vital to have an inclusive environment where everyone feels able to participate and achieve their potential. While legislation – covering age, disability, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation among others – sets minimum standards, an effective diversity and inclusion strategy goes beyond legal compliance and seeks to add value to an organisation, contributing to employee well-being and engagement.

The moral case for building fairer and more inclusive labour markets and workplaces is indisputable: regardless of our identity, background or circumstances, we all deserve the opportunity to develop our skills and talents to our full potential, work in a safe, supportive and inclusive environment, be fairly rewarded and recognised for our work and have a meaningful voice on matters that affect us.

In addition to the moral and people management cases, the aviation sector has also safety reasons to work on unbiasing the selection process, and on unconscious bias training, cultural differences and inclusive team management. The Annual Safety Forum, held in Brussels in June 2023, discussed in depth how we select and train the next generations of aviation professionals. It became clear that we need to pay special attention to training people to work in a highly interconnected and very diverse environment so that misunderstandings are avoided, and differences can be discussed and resolved. In addition, the Forum found that managing diversity is important to maintain a healthy safety climate within teams, in times when our societies are galvanised by numerous political and moral topics.

Aviation should care about its diversity and inclusion as many studies have linked the diversity of teams with the quality of innovation they are able to produce. The aviation sector is going through a considerable digital rehaul, a trend that is likely only to intensify in the years to come. Today, the ATM industry is a system of systems where actors are interconnected in a socio-technical network. I call the ability to work and function in this ultra-connected world “diversability”. The better individual teams and organisations are at being able to extract the value of diversity, the more innovative the sector will be.

Salvatore Sciacchitano, President of the ICAO Council and Milena Bowman, EUROCONTROL

Lastly, we must keep in mind that diversity is often referred to in scientific literature as a double-edged sword. On one hand, people with diverse backgrounds bring knowledge from these backgrounds and offer different ways to approach a problem or structure a solution. The richness of the ideas and the number of innovative ideas are often correlated with the diversity of the people in the team. On the other hand, diversity might also form social categorisation within a team leading to “them and us thinking”. In the worst case, this thinking can become “them vs. us” and create fault lines among team members. For teams welcoming new members it would be beneficial to spend time getting to know them. The ability of the team to benefit from the inherent diversity dividend it has depends on the ability of team members individually and the team itself to incorporate different points of view, combining them in a better solution. Plainly put, diversity is good but only if the organisation is ready for it.

For all these reasons, organisations regionally and globally have deployed activities to promote diversity and inclusion. Such work links directly with EC Directives, many state laws, UN Global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Environment, Society and Governance (ESG) standards in general. There are a number of ongoing initiatives such as IATA 25 by 2025, ICAO NGAP, DG-MOVE platform for Change, EU Ambassadors for Diversity in Transport, EUROCAE WG125 and the ongoing initiative facilitated by EUROCONTROL and EASA to create a network among ATM diversity and inclusion leaders. ICAO and EUROCONTROL announced their intentions for collaboration at the ICAO Global Aviation Gender Summit in Madrid, July 7, 2023.

The EC Platform for Change was established in 2017, to make sure that women and men are given equal opportunities to participate in the transport sector. The platform members also realised that by concentrating only on the gender aspect of diversity, a lot of under represented groups in aviation are left behind. Hence the European Commission funded the Ambassadors for Diversity In Transport initiative that seeks to promote diversity, equality and inclusion within the EU transport sector. This is done by raising awareness and sharing information on and developing and implementing initiatives to promote diversity in the EU transport sector, from the perspective of transport workers and transport users. EUROCONTROL proudly hosted its first meeting in March 2023 at its Headquarters.

Many organisations are working together on this topic: ECAC, EUROCAE, many ANSPs (MUAC, Skyguide, LVNL, BULATSA, PANSA, AUSTRO CONTROL, NATS, IATCA, DSNA, skeyes, ENAV and more to come) professional staff organisations (IFATCA, ATSEPSA), social partners (ETF, ATCEUC), NGOs (IAWA, Avi4All, EPAN, Ellas-Vuelan-Alto,T-C Alliance), academic institutions and consulting (Leiden University, EAAP, NLR, CAOP, FoxATM). In our work we found that sharing our experiences, collating best practices and sharing available material creates a strong network.

The benefits of such a network are multiple. First, sharing knowledge makes the organisations’ journey in diversity and inclusion more efficient. The group members share not only beneficial and successful activities, but also the negative ones, thus signposting to organisations difficulties and barriers that could be avoided. Second, working together on the same objectives is something that our industry has done on multiple technological projects. Deploying these industry organisational skills to work also on diversity and inclusion brings efficiency and economies of scale for deploying training programmes and communication campaigns. Lastly, working on diversity and inclusion sometimes takes an emotional toll on the people involved, as the conversations are often psychologically tense. A network of people who are busy in the area provides psychological support for those involved in putting humans back at the centre of our work.

If aviation wants to have a sustainable future it must make sure there are enough qualified people to deliver services. We do not have 450 years to wait for culture to change naturally. We have to work together on making our ranks more inclusive, to welcome and retain the diverse new generations of aviation professionals. Aviation simply cannot afford to not work on diversity and inclusion.

Milena Bowman is an Executive Manager at MUAC Operations, EUROCONTROL, founder of a Diversity and Inclusion Think-Tank and a PhD candidate with Leiden University researching the topic of Team Diversity and Safety Climate.

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