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The Sky's the Limit ... or Is It?

07/03/2014 10:50 GMT | Updated 06/05/2014 10:59 BST

Trouble in the air

At the beginning of March, the captain at the healm of a WestJet flight, Carey Smith Steacy, found an offensive note on a passenger seat. 'The cockpit of an airline is no place for a woman'. The note expressed the wish that passengers were told if there was a female captain 'so I can book another flight'. An isolated problem?

Just a few days later, an article in HR Magazine reported that executive search companies frequently overlooked women for board-level appointments, with lack of 'gravitas' as one of the many reasons offered. The fact that research shows men as more likely to display 'gravitas' than women, as part of the arsenal of 'command and control' leadership, and that it has little place in superior 'transformational' leadership, is key to understanding the errors at play here. Continuing to seek leaders with 'gravitas' will condemn organisations to old-fashioned leadership rooted in distance rather than relationship. Leadership of this kind will almost certainly fail to produce the kind of results achievable with more modern, female, leadership.

Inspiring change

So, the theme of International Women's day 2014, 'Inspiring change', is an opportunity to reconsider the capabilities on which business success rests. According to Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and Alison Maitland, 'Gender is a business issue not a women's issue' and so a consideration of questions relating to women, opens up wider issues for business. Women's day is a call to action to businesses with predominantly male senior management to re-examine the competences used in leadership selection. Is the ability to form relationships, inspire teams and create a vision at the heart of leadership selection? If not, then it is time to consider a move from Transactional to Transformational leadership, with the promise of 20% increases in productivity.

Alongside this review of competences could come a review of training opportunities. A report by Demos has found the UK trailing behind other G20 countries in apprenticeship opportunities and so the education sector needs to do all it can to boost opportunities. So- called 'new universities' are well placed to do this, with a more applied curriculum than is usual at more established institutions. At the University where I work, for example, Buckinghamshire New University, students can opt for an 'Air transport and commercial airline training' degree and come away with a commercial pilot's licence that offers a stepping stone to a career in aviation. Some of the graduates from this course have become pilots at Ryanair, Air Lingus and Cathay Pacific and becoming a captain at top airlines can bring a six-figure salary.

How to bring about change

These educational courses can also change the industry demographics. One reason for the shock of the passenger on the Westjet flight is the paucity of female pilots - currently, a tiny 3% of all airline pilots are female. On the pilot courses at Buckinghamshire New University, 14% of the students are female and so education can have a major impact changing demographics. They can change perceptions too. According to Dr Jenny Tilbury, Head of Department ' Of the class of 2013, the best overall student out of 120 students was female'. The reason? According to Senior Lecturer, George Georgiou, it is hard to generalise but he has noticed that during their pilot training in the US, 'guys can loose focus as to why they're there while young women don't tend to'.

Focus is just what one hopes for from a pilot of the commercial airliner and according to Analysa Welsh, a stewardess for eighteen years with United Airlines, 'female pilots are just as good as the men'. It is education institutions that can break the bottlenecks and organisations that can follow-suit with a recognition of a broad range of competences. That way, women will see that the sky really is the limit.

Dr Gloria Moss is Professor of Management and Marketing at Buckinghamshire New University. She is a Fellow of the CIPD and the author of several books on Management, Marketing and Diversity.