Below capacity – Making space for women in airfreight

A sea of black and blue suits.

Women in airfreight are often confronted with this all-too-familiar sight as they walk into a convention center, executive meeting, shareholder discussion or conversation among industry experts. In this male-dominated industry, to be a woman in airfreight is to be an outlier, swimming in a pool full of people who look different than oneself.

“We have a phrase in diversity, equity and inclusion, which is: ‘You can’t be what you can’t see,’” Jane Hoskisson, director of talent, learning, engagement and diversity at the International Air Transport Association (IATA), told Air Cargo World. “If you’re at an event and you feel like you’re the only person that looks like you, sounds like you, has a similar experience to you, it makes it really, really difficult to connect.”

Airfreight industry leaders agree there needs to be increased visibility of women experts and leaders, as well as more resources for women to advocate for themselves and further their careers.

To empower organizations and individuals to foster female representation across airfreight, groups like IATA and Women in Aviation and Logistics (WAL) are spearheading data-based growth and inclusion methods.

Entering the atmosphere

Historically, both aviation and logistics are industries that retain employees for the tenure of their careers, with many starting at the ground level in warehouses or ground handling, said Joke Aerts, director of marketing at data-sharing platform Nallian. These frontline positions are more often occupied by men, making the leadership pipeline male dominated.

“The perception [of airfreight] is that it can be mostly frontline workers moving boxes … and it does struggle with its image to be perceived as one which is diverse and inclusive as an industry,” Brendan Sullivan, IATA’s global head of cargo, told Air Cargo World.

In 2021, of the 1.2 million people registered as civil airmen who were not students, only 248,448 — or around 21% — were women. Of 108,206 commercial pilots, 8,421 were women, just 8%.

Of IATA’s 297 member airlines, 24 are led by female chief executives or managing directors, or around 8%.In 2019, this number was closer to 3%, according to IATA estimates.

More recently, the airfreight industry has begun pulling in more talent from other places, including the passenger side of aviation and technology fields.

For Meantime Communications founder and chief executive Emma Murray, landing a position in the airfreight industry was serendipitous.

“I did what everyone seems to do, or say they do — I got here by mistake,” Murray told Air Cargo World.

Murray was a journalist, covering airfreight for a now-defunct publication, and remembers the warning from a British Airways Cargo executive that if she stayed in the industry for six months, she’d stay forever. And he was right.

Both Celine Hourcade, founder and managing director at consulting firm Change Horizon, and Sara Van Gelder, director of products at Nallian, echoed Murray’s story — joining the airfreight industry wasn’t their plan but rather the next best opportunity for them. In fact, while many people don’t necessarily aspire to be in airfreight, most stay in the industry until they retire, Hourcade said.

“We used to say that air cargo is like a small village or a family,” she added. “It’s quite a small world; we see the same faces — sometimes it’s with different business cards — but we keep seeing the same family members.”

Low visibility

For women already in airfreight, the problem is not a lack of opportunity or enough support, which women in the industry agree exists.

“From the get go, I have been respected and heard,” Aileen Wallace, the first female cargo business development manager at Newcastle International Airport (NCL), told Air Cargo World. “I’m surrounded by a supportive team of both men and women at all stages in their careers.”

Instead, it’s a lack of recognition from the industry at large.

“I know there are many women out there that would like to be more visible and to be heard; they are just not seen or not known by the event organizers, by the media, by all of these people that need experts,” Hourcade said.

Nallian’s Aerts and Van Gelder said it’s common to be the only woman or one of a few women at an event with several hundred people, which can be both isolating and distinguishing, as it gives them the opportunity to stand out.

“For years, Celine [Hourcade] and I have gone around the world and been to events where we saw no women represented,” Meantime’s Murray said. “Not just no women — no young people, no people of color and just the same people represented again and again on stage.”

Creating a diverse speaker faculty is “extremely challenging,” IATA’s Sullivan said, citing scheduling conflicts and travel requirements among the hinderances toward a diverse panel. “For us, it’s a matter of trying to make sure that we have everyone represented as much as possible, that they bring something unique and special and all of these things, and that can be quite a challenge.”

Hourcade disagrees.

“There are already a lot women and female experts in every topic in the sector like security, digital transformation, sustainability, revenue, optimization, strategy, handling of specialty cargo, you name it,” she said. It’s the press, event planners and community leaders that neglect to represent women equally, she added.

Hourcade and Murray founded Women in Aviation and Logistics (WAL) in 2021 to address inclusivity in airfreight — not to offer criticism, but to create actionable change, Murray said. The group has 111 signatories who have committed to its pledge to mobilize the industry, advocate for change and define concrete goals to achieve gender equality, according to its website.

“Visibility is key for role models in the public space and the workplace, and women’s distinct and expert voices must be elevated through gender parity,” according to WAL’s website. “Diverse points of view generate sustainable, innovative solutions, and lead to a change in culture; while visible role models contribute to attract and retain the best talents.”

Part of the challenge lies in a lack of data, Hourcade noted. How can the industry properly assess and measure diversity and inclusion at events if it doesn’t track those numbers?

“Every transformation program that I’ve run started with, ‘Let’s have the facts,’” she said. “’Let’s size the issue, have data and set up some targets’ … and [the data] doesn’t exist on this specific issue.”

Hourcade’s first goal was to create a database of female speakers and benchmark women in leadership roles. As of Nov. 2, the WAL female speaker database has 61 experts across fields who are interested in speaking at events.

For 2021, of the eight, in-person aviation and logistics events hosted, 54 of the 393 speakers were women, or 14%. That number has held true so far in 2022 and as of Nov. 2, of the 23 global in-person events WAL tracked, there were 933 speakers and 129 were women, or 14%.

The World Cargo Symposium, IATA’s annual airfreight conference, missed IATA’s target of 25% female speakers, Sullivan said, but it continues to be a focus for organizers.

“It’s not enough to say we didn’t quite get there; it’s more just how we’re going to look and make sure that we do that [in the future],” he said.

Growing the numbers

In 2019, IATA started 25by2025, a gender-inclusivity initiative to increase representation of women in male-dominated roles in aviation. The organization set a goal for member airlines to either increase their staffing to 25% female or increase the number of women in underrepresented roles by 25% by 2025.

The different variations of 25% accommodate airlines at all stages of gender diversity, IATA’s Hoskisson said. Airlines with more than 25% women in their leadership teams can continue to grow their representation against current metrics, and airlines significantly behind 25% can take smaller steps while still joining benchmarking in 2025.

In its first year, 25by2025 gained 56 signatories, and as of Nov. 3 is at 147 signatories, Hoskisson said. Seven signatories are cargo airlines, but many combination carriers like Lufthansa or Qatar Airways have also pledged support.

In addition to encouraging more inclusivity, 25by205 “is also about showcasing, so it’s all well and good every individual airline is doing their own thing, but we also want to provide an umbrella for us to collectively show that the industry is welcoming and diverse,” Hoskisson said.

Each airline self-discloses its gender breakdown to IATA. Of the 141 airlines that reported this year, they are tracking toward 21% of positions held by women, Hoskisson said. However, 25by2025 does not create resources to help airlines attract, develop or retain women once in these roles, creating a separate challenge to maintain increased gender diversity.

Recognizing one another in mentorship

To help women on an individual level, WAL launched a mentorship program this year, partnering 27 female mentees with 27 female and male mentors with the goal to further connect and empower women who want to grow their networks, Murray said.

“Everybody needs examples; having examples helps you go for opportunities and think you can do things … it might inspire other people and give them belief and strength like, ‘Oh, if they can do that, why couldn’t I?’” Nallian’s Aerts said.

Mentorship plays a “massive” role in gender inclusivity, NCL’s Wallace said. She recounted an experience being mentored early in her career after university by a female sales manager who ignited her aspirations toward a limitless career in airfreight, she said.

WAL is not trying to create a “girls’ club” or overpower men, Murray and Hourcade said, but rather drive equal visibility and inclusion for minority voices.

“We are calling men to join that movement and help us, because its everyone’s issue and everyone’s responsibility to make a change,” Hourcade said.

Nallian’s Van Gelder is a mentor in the WAL program, and said the program teaches her as much as it did her mentee, “because it’s the questions you ask each other and another perspective, another way of looking at the way you maybe intuitively react,” she said.

WAL has a waitlist of 20 mentors and 30 mentees, Hourcade said. In the future, Murray said she’d like to expand diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and target additional minority groups.

Telling air cargo’s story

Stakeholders also point to the industry’s public image as another reason for the lack of female representation in airfreight.

“I think it’s our own fault honestly, for projecting wrongly instead of celebrating [air cargo],” Murray said. “It’s an amazing career opportunity for so many people, and that’s what we need to champion.”

As labor challenges grow across the supply chain, Murray emphasized the need to promote the importance of airfreight, its role in people’s lives and the opportunities for growth. Van Gelder agreed.

“I think there’s actually not necessarily a reason why women would not join the air cargo industry, or why young people would not join — there is a huge opportunity for improvement, it’s very interesting, there’s a lot to do, which also makes it really rewarding because things can be improved,” Van Gelder said. “It’s more the image people have, and the first point of interaction is still pretty male dominant and older people.”

Air cargo stakeholders singled out people as a top priority, IATA’s Sullivan said, and the industry needs diverse and well-represented people. But to do that, “we need to make sure that air cargo remains visible and all the value that it brings,” he added.

To recognize the next generation of young, diverse voices, IATA hosts the Future Air Cargo Executive Summit (FACES) to promote the next generation of airfreight professionals, and the International Freight Forwarding Association (FIATA) honors Young Logistics Professionals (YLP).

“I think if we want to accelerate the process and bring out the best talents — whether it’s into our industry or another — evolve them soon enough so you can spot the talent sooner and further nourish and nurture them so they can sooner make an impact,” Aerts said.

Flying forward

To attract and retain future generations of women in airfreight, the industry needs to better understand what women want and need in the workplace, sources agreed.

“I think if we want to accelerate the process and bring out the best talents — whether it’s into our industry or another — evolve them soon enough so you can spot the talent sooner and further nourish and nurture them, so they can sooner make an impact,” Aerts said.

On a personal level, young women are looking for flexibility in the workplace, and they prioritize work-life balance, Hourcade and Murray said, adding that providing these opportunities will make a company more attractive.

Having a strong policy against harassment in the workplace is another step companies can take to make their business more welcoming toward women, Hourcade said.

NCL launched a review of its policies, procedures and practices as well as a diversity and inclusion survey to better understand its shortcomings in equal opportunities, Wallace said. The airport also updated its maternity pay policy to further “break some barriers to success in the industry,” she added.

Top-down leadership initiatives that prioritize a diverse workplace are also important. “I think that inclusivity is often related to a person’s mindset. If a leader has inclusivity high upon its radar, this will be felt in their department or company, regardless of their official policy,” Aerts said.

But visibility must extend beyond equal opportunities and promotion for women, many agreed.

“For me, it’s not just about women, absolutely not,” Murray said. “This is a place we can start. It has to be about the next generation of people, people of air cargo. Everyone should be able to see themselves.”

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