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Lessons from aviation for women in business

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In aviation, ‘service ceiling’ is used to describe the maximum altitude that an aircraft can effectively operate. Above that it can hardly climb, glacially edging upwards towards the point it can go no higher, the absolute ceiling, says Jon Foster-Pedley, dean of Henley Business School Africa.
The same thought was used to describe the limit to women’s careers, the ‘glass ceiling’, an invisible and subtle, yet unbreakable barrier where the next level of career advancement can be seen, but cannot be reached. Katherine Lawrence of Hewlett Packard introduced this idea in 1979.

The glass ceiling is said to cap women’s career growth in a man’s world, where men chose to exclude women from the senior club, where business was done on the golf course and over dinner as much as in the boardroom. The causes were held to be the old boy network, sexual discrimination, weak legislation, widespread sexual harassment, male/female job segregation (i.e. women in HR, marketing, support and PR; and men in finance, general management, etc). Of all the careers where a glass ceiling seems apparent, piloting is one of the highest, with just 5% to 7% of all pilots being women.

Is this intentional? I very much doubt it. Certainly British Airways have worked hard to raise the number of women pilots they have, with limited success, as have engineering, consulting, manufacturing and service companies.

Recently, more nuanced views have arrived to help reflect on the relative lack of women in boardrooms and senior management. In 2012 research by EY with 1000 women leaders in the UK, four barriers emerged. They are age, lack of role models, motherhood, and qualifications and experience.

For women pilots, just one of these, motherhood, has deep challenges for career continuity. A pilot, to progress, needs to build flying hours, to have current experience, to maintain high skill levels and to stay on the seniority ladder. Often a significant part of their salary is flying pay. When pregnant, she must stop flying for at least part of her pregnancy. Then she will take maternity leave – in the UK statutory maternity leave is six months and it can be up to a year. Depending on the airline, she may lose flying pay – in some countries, such as India, up to 75% of pay may go. And during this absence, no flying hours are built up, skills and flying currency is lost, and there is a good chance of slipping back on the career ladder and losing the chance of becoming a captain.

As if this wasn’t challenge enough, EY says that the barriers can be experienced at any time and often together. Whilst the barriers clearly aren’t exclusive to women, the research showed that employers need to do a lot more to help women, in particular, overcome them. It’s not so much any particular person’s attitude where the problem lies, it’s more in the implicit structures, practices and assumptions in our organisations.

One of the killer assumptions is that fair means equal. We differ, as personalities, in gender and what that brings, and so a one-size-fits-all policy doesn’t necessarily cut it. Maria Miller, when minister for women and equalities in the UK, said: “It goes without saying that men and women are different. The workplace was designed by men for men but times have changed and if we want women to be able to fulfil their potential – we need to modernise the workplace.”

Helena Morrissey, CEO of Newton Investment Management, said: “Men and women are different – equally intelligent but we behave differently and are motivated by different things.” Ignoring these differences can be plain insensitive and poor talent management.

Take women pilots. A pilot, Mireille Goyer writing in AvWeb said: “Like I did, I bet that many little girls dream about flying like a bird. But, I would also bet that most do not dream of growing up to do a job that requires them to dress in men’s clothing complete with a straight-cut jacket, a cap designed to enhance male facial traits and a black tie. Given a choice, I suspect most little boys would not dream of doing a job that required them to wear women’s clothing on a daily basis either”.

How different is this to how women are treated in another traditionally male sector, the motorcycle industry. Goyer goes on to describe how Harley Davidson reserves an entire section of their website to women riders with subsections such as riding courses, mentoring, the right bike, and, yes, riding gear and apparel. And it was good business practice. From 2003 to 2008, Harley Davidson saw a whopping 29 per cent increase in the number of female motorcycle owners.

Communication is an endless challenge too. For example, gender patterns in talking vary hugely, even without taking into account intercultural differences. I’m paraphrasing Mary Turny and Ruth Sitler here – they wrote about Professor Deborah Frances Tannen, a world-leading researcher on speech patterns in gender. Tannen spoke to female surgeons. One said “I first modelled my behaviour on male surgeons. The operating room functioned like the military with the surgeon barking orders. I found that it didn’t work for me. Rather, by allying myself with nurses and respecting them as professional colleagues, they became my best allies”.

Tannen concluded that men can be authoritarian without loss of service support, but women cannot operate in the same way.

Sitler says; ‘It seems we can learn though. Flight crew language was found to operate on both a propositional level (what is said) and a relational level (what it implies about the speakers’ relationships). The most effective crews attend to the relational level. This means that by using direct, but courteous language crew coordination improves. Awareness of power displays is important. Pilot-in-command responsibilities must never be given up in the face of loud or aggressive language. Courteous, thoughtful responses and consistent respect are most successful communication tools for a crew.

Women’s tendency to check and re-check information and to ask questions is useful in error management. We have found that instructor pilots need to adjust to meet women’s needs for more thorough understanding. Instructors should frequently ask women students if they understand a concept or manoeuvre. The answers will usually be candid, while male students will nearly always respond that they understand whether or not they do indeed understand.”

All this seems remarkably true of the boardroom and the general world of work too. The aim of a gender-friendly board and of intelligent, different individuals thinking intelligently together is certainly worth shooting for.

About Jon Foster-Pedley
Jon Foster-Pedley is the Dean of Henley BusinessSchool, Africa, www.henleysa.ac.za. He is a former airline captain, and was a flying instructor andaerobatics pilot for 15 years as well as a senior executive in the European aerospace industry.