The question of gender imbalance in air cargo

The question of gender imbalance in air cargo

By Elizabeth Merritt, Managing Director — Cargo Services, Airlines for America.

On the eve of International Women’s Day in March, the Boston Globe published a detailed graphic charting the percentages of women and men in various professions.

At the far ends of the scale, women represent over 97 percent of preschool/kindergarten teachers and speech pathologists, while men represent over 99 percent of heavy vehicle mechanics, crane operators, and logging workers.

When the topic of female representation in our industry comes up, I have mixed feelings. On one hand, each of us knows a multitude of talented women working at all levels and in all parts of the air cargo world. Air Canada recently marked International Women’s Day with all-female crews on flights across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The Flying Typers’ “Women in Charge” feature regularly showcases notable women in the air cargo world. And in a series of trade publications, American Airlines has made women in air cargo a focus.

On the other hand, it is not particularly unusual for me to be the only woman, or one of a handful, at many air cargo meetings, and we are an obvious minority at all of them, excluding those specifically aimed at women. It is an amusing exercise to change “women” to “men” in the examples provided above — i.e., “all-male crews” and “men in air cargo” features. This aptly demonstrates we still have some distance to travel.

In the airline world, I have known many colleagues — both female and male — who landed in cargo by chance from other divisions. But why should that be? Air cargo moves a fascinating range of high-value products around the world, within mere hours, on our engineering-marvel aircraft. We are an indispensable part of a geographically-intertwined and modally-integrated supply chain that literally makes our modern world tick. Compared to the “derrières in seats” description often applied to the passenger world, air cargo should be a slam-dunk, proactive career choice. Why is that often not the case, especially for women?

SCM World has opined that the term “supply chain” has a ho-hum ring to it. Does “air cargo” fare any better?

Tim Strauss of Air Canada Cargo has noted that the air cargo industry has come a long way from the early days, when it relied to a great degree on physical strength and manual labor. Instead, “We’re now an industry that is driven by engineering, systems design, smart data, quality control and artificial intelligence.” Such changes are even starting to be felt on the operations side of the house, as technology-assisted workflows move onto the warehouse floor. In interviews for the trade publications referenced above, the women of American Airlines Cargo returned again and again to a few key themes: the rapid transformation of today’s air cargo business environment, IT and technology modernization, advances in data-based decisionmaking, innovation in air cargo product offerings, the satisfaction inherent in logistical problem-solving and, last but certainly not least, the primacy of the airline to customer relationship and the close-knit nature of the “air cargo family.”

Do we tell this dynamic story effectively, to either men or women?

I do not mean in any way to discount the potential utility of initiatives that expressly reach out to any group that is underrepresented in air cargo, or to brush aside the question of whether there might be a place for specific accommodations that facilitate a healthy work/life balance. Rather, I propose that certain misperceptions about the nature of the air cargo industry that hinder our ability to attract talent generally may also be contributing specifically to the gender disparity we face. Returning to the Boston Globe article for a moment, does “air cargo” sound more like “kindergarten teacher” or “crane operator”? “Speech pathologist” or “mechanic”? Although the word “cargo” might make the rest of the world think more immediately of machinery, those in the industry know that success in air cargo is highly dependent on collaborative thinking, relationship maintenance and emotional intelligence.

Is it possible that a lingering perception of “cargo” as nothing but forklifts, exposure to the elements, and brute physical force might disproportionally dissuade women from joining our industry? Is it possible that accurately conveying the fundamental importance of communication and relationship-stewardship in the air cargo world might appeal strongly to women, perhaps more so than to men? There is only one way to find out: by ensuring that industry outreach efforts focused on attracting and retaining talent also correct misperceptions about the nature of our industry. In such a manner, initiatives to generally improve recruitment might not only help secure the air cargo workforce of the future, but simultaneously move the needle of women’s representation in that workforce closer to the 50/50 mark.

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