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Why don’t women run airlines? Part Two of the Airline Leader special report


In the second of a four-part series on women in aviation, CAPA's new Airline Leader high-end monthly magazine examines the typical roles occupied by women across the world’s airlines. The report notes that a common thread among many women who have navigated their way to the top is that they have either started out with a smaller company and grown with it, or progressed through smaller, often subsidiary, regional airlines. In each case, the barriers to sideways movement would be much lower and the day-to-day exposure to issues right across the company’s activities much greater.”

Women predominate, as in most companies, in the personnel and human relations area, occupying under one quarter of all senior executive positions. Marketing and planning areas and CCOs account for another 30 jobs, with financial (19), customer services (18) and legal (15) areas the next most popular. Only three chief operating officers were identified among the 193 airlines studied.

According to the report, the hardest region for a woman to make it to the top echelons is in Europe, the Middle East and Latin America. In Europe, of 71 airlines reviewed, 46 female executives enjoy direct reports to their CEO; in Latin America, the proportion is 12/7 and in the Middle East it is 26/12.”

“The ratio is more favourable in North America, at 30/45, although here the “traditional” female roles predominate: between them, customer services, human resources/personnel and inflight service roles account for over half of all the direct reports. One interesting feature of this region’s senior women is that five are CIOs or equivalent. Outside North America there is only one other female CIO globally, perhaps globally, perhaps reflecting the earlier uptake of technology in the US and Canada, in turn attracting more women into that sector in the past couple of decades.”

“Nearly a quarter of all women in high places in European airlines are in the senior financial role, probably the most significant difference across roles and regions. Why Europeans apparently have a greater preference to leave their financial management in women’s hands is not clear.”

Accumulating the main factors that appear to militate against female progression through the ranks, the main three appear to be:

  • The industry is historically oriented around engineering and flying operations, areas which tended to be highly male dominated – the “boysy” industry we noted in part one of this report;
  • Airlines are highly complex and specialised companies, which lend themselves to nearly-unavoidable silos or pipelines. For various reasons, horizontal mobility across these silos has perhaps been easier for men, while women tend to establish in a specialist niche; and
  • The usually heavy travel workload, both day-to-day and in international postings necessary to gain wide corporate experience, possibly creates a difficult environment for women to be upwardly mobile.

The full report is available in this month's edition of Airline Leader.

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