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Europe's ​airlines lament lack of female engineers and pilots

Two of Europe's biggest airline groups would like to see more women taking up engineering and pilot roles, but cite a lack of female applicants that is making progress tough.

"We are still finding that when we advertise for jobs… we are getting 70%, 80% male applicants," said IAG chief executive Willie Walsh during a panel discussion at the A4E Aviation Summit in Brussels on 6 March. "It should be 50:50. And I can't understand why it wouldn't be 50:50, other than we are just not yet convincing young women that aviation holds opportunities for them."

Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary says his airline likewise finds that applicants for pilot roles tend to be overwhelmingly male. "We do recruitment days for pilot cadets – it's 90% male and 10% female," he says. "You do a recruitment day for cabin crew, it's the other way around: it's 80-20 female-male. We need to encourage more women to consider [airline] pilot as a career."

He argues: "There’s nothing wrong with the gender balance in aviation. In fact, it’s heavily skewed towards females, but they are generally on the cabin-crew side."

At the same event, Boeing's senior vice-president of commercial sales and marketing Ihssane Mounir suggested that the airframer had found some success in improving the gender balance in engineering roles by educating girls about careers in aviation from a young age.

"It had to be a deliberate plan to do it," Mounir says. "You had to go work at the lower levels, the high-school levels, before high-school levels, and get young ladies very interested in the engineering world and making sure that they feel comfortable doing it.

"I've got two young daughters and at the weekends I take them to the factory and show them around," he adds. "They too can do this."

Walsh agrees that the "fascinating challenge" of attracting more women into the industry can only be addressed by convincing young girls to consider a career in aviation.

"We're out there in the schools – and you've got to get into the schools because we've got to get them at an early age… get them thinking about aviation, get them thinking about engineering, get them thinking about flying as opportunities for them.

"This is a job that everybody needs to participate in," Walsh adds. "We have a responsibility to talk about the opportunities and make sure that what has been historically seen as a male-dominated industry addresses that."

He cites the example of the pilot gender mix at Aer Lingus. The carrier recruited its first female pilot in 1977, Walsh recalls, and about one in 10 such positions today are filled by women.

"It has taken over 40 years to get from zero to 10%," he says. "It is unacceptable, but there is no simple, easy solution."

The pay and conditions afforded to pilots should, in O'Leary's view, make the role "a great career for someone with a family".

He notes: "You do five [days] on, four off... You are limited to 900 hours a year – 18-and-a-half hours a week – and you get paid 200 grand a year. We need to communicate that message more actively to women."

O'Leary – whose airline has been mired in negotiations with pilot unions across Europe in recent months – concludes: "If we had more female pilots, you'd have a generally more sensible pilot body anyway, because women tend to be more intelligent and more sensible than men at the best of times."

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