How women could make or break the UK aerospace industry

The UK’s aerospace industry is a real success story. According to a Commons Briefing Paper published in November 2017, the UK sector had a turnover of £31 billion in the previous year, around 90% of which came from exports. It contributed £8.7 billion to the UK economy and directly employed 120,000 people.

On the international stage, we are punching well above our weight. Today, the UK aerospace industry is the fourth largest in the world and the second largest in Europe* - a testament to our ingenuity and engineering skills. But this is no time for complacency. First, some context.

It took humankind just 66 years to progress from the first powered flight to walking on the moon. Now we are in a rush to cross the threshold of a new age of aerospace and aviation - an age where aircraft are powered by electric engines and by hybrid engines.

Autonomous air taxis: Commomplace within a decade

Pilotless, autonomous ‘air taxis’, which you can summon with an app on your phone, will be commonplace in the skies above our cities within a decade, perhaps less. In fact, the prototypes of these aircraft, designed and developed by aerospace manufacturers in the UK, Germany, China, and the USA are already being tested. The race is on.

As we move into this new digital age of flight, however, we are beginning to see a skills shortage - especially in software development and systems integration. The aerospace industry, with its tight discipline and strict regulation, has to compete with the bright lights and glitz of the gaming industry and sundry movers and shakers of the digital economy.

Ironically, it is the ability to work with such precision and discipline which makes our developers and integrators attractive to head hunters. In other words, we have the double whammy of a retention challenge as well as a recruitment challenge.

Unless we find ways to boost recruitment and improve retention, we risk losing talent to companies which are leaner and more agile because they have embraced digital technologies right from the start.

The value of diversity

The second challenge is diversity. There is a useful aphorism which comes to mind: ‘‘if your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  The aerospace industry is in the process of reinventing itself, embracing new technologies and perhaps a new business model. But it is populated largely by a male workforce and, unless we redress the balance, our challenges of the future might begin to look like nails.

Women are grossly under-represented at a senior level

Women are grossly under-represented at a senior level and unevenly represented across the various business functions. And while opportunities are open in the technical areas of engineering; design; programme management, and sales and business development, the intake of females is worryingly low.

Julia Jiggins, who heads up Thales’s Civil Avionics Sales and Business Development in the UK, is something of a rarity in this male-dominated sector. In a recent interview she revealed that at an industry conference held in the US, out of 55 delegates from the UK only two were female. Why?

The aerospace and aviation industries are cautious about risk. They have to be. That’s fine, but it does mean that people who have been in the industry for a long time tend to be the first in line for promotion to senior and safety-critical positions. And those people, at the moment, are mostly male.

This lack of diversity no longer serves the industry’s requirements. This isn’t a matter of gender or political correctness – it is the clear and irrefutable logic which says that the more diverse your workforce, the deeper your pool of life experience and creativity. Old and young, male and female, different cultures and backgrounds: diversity is hugely important. We need to mix it up and get creative.

Make no mistake, if we don’t fix this now, it is going to get more difficult and expensive to fix in the future, and we will be slower at bringing new products to market. That will have a major impact on the UK economy.

We have two problems marching hand-in-hand: a lack of diversity and a skills shortage. If we solve the former, we’ll solve the latter. Happily, the government and the industry has woken up to all of this and is taking steps to encourage change.

Women in Aviation and Aerospace Charter

At the Farnborough Air Show 2018, Thales became one of 68 signatories to the UK Government’s Women in Aviation and Aerospace Charter. The charter, which calls for a gender balance at all levels across aviation and aerospace:

  • Commits organisations to supporting the progression of women into senior roles in the aviation and aerospace sectors by focusing on the executive pipeline and the mid-tier level.
  • Recognises the diversity of the sector and that organisations will have different starting points – each organisation should therefore set its own targets, where appropriate, and implement the right strategy for their organisation
  • Requires organisations to publicly report on progress to deliver against any internal targets to support the transparency and accountability needed to drive change.

This isn’t just lip service. it has teeth, too. Signatory companies are expected to make a senior executive responsible and accountable for gender diversity and inclusion, setting internal targets for achieving this. In addition, they commit to publicly publishing their progress, and must link the pay of the senior executive team to delivery against those targets.

But it’s not enough to simply sign a charter and leave it at that. If the industry is to solve the dual challenge of a lack of diversity and a skills shortage, a more holistic approach is needed.

Engaging schools and colleges with inspiring STEM projects

Thales recognised this some years ago. Today we engage schools and colleges with inspiring STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) projects; we run successful, high-profile schemes to attract apprentices and graduates, and we consult widely on how to improve diversity and how to attract and retain the digital and systems integration skills that every aerospace manufacturer so urgently needs.

If we are to recruit the best and brightest minds - the people who can turn the dream of zero-emission aero engines and autonomous unmanned flight an achievable reality - we need to learn from employers in the digital economy.

Our industry needs a better work/life balance and more flexible working practices. We need to put some of the digital technology to work for the benefit of our employees, not just our customers. We need to have fun.

Will taking positive action to address the diversity challenge make a career in aerospace more attractive for young women? Yes, of course. But it will also make it more attractive for women and men of all ages, too.

With diversity, everyone wins.

The UK has been fabulously successful in the aerospace industry since it began. Let’s make sure that we are even more successful in the years to come.

* Source: AeroDynamic Advisory & Teal Group 2017