Why don’t women run airlines? Of quotas, women's networks and mentors


In the third of a four-part series on women in aviation, Airline Leader looks at the contentious issue of quotas for leadership positions and the role of female networks on women's advancement.

Why don't women run airlines? It is one thing to recognise that gender imbalance is in no one's best interests. But shifting the status quo is more than a little troublesome, especially in an industry which is still embedded in a technical and operational environment. The range of options, from full-frontal onslaught through to much more subtle trajectories, offers greater hope than in the past. Imposed quotas are controversial, informal and formal women's networks are spreading quickly, but if there is one area where unanimity seems likely, it is in the formalisation of mentoring as a means to aiding women to access formerly male-only domains. And here there is, as always, an essential requirement – a hospitable corporate culture. 

According to data compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organisation of parliaments, 56% of Rwanda's elected parliament consists of women, even though Rwanda ranks humbly on the score of democracy. Sweden, with its quota system, boasts 45% women in its single house. Of the top 10 countries in this classification, three are in Africa, Cuba (also very mildly democratic) is alone in the Americas, four are Nordic countries and the remaining two, with 40% and 39% respectively, are the Netherlands and Belgium. The US, with 17%, ranks just above San Marino and Albania and well below Germany (33% women), the UAE (23%), Canada, (22%), the UK (22%) and France (19%).

Political representation not reflected in business

Quota targets have existed for some time in countries such as Sweden, and France requires all political parties to include 50% of women candidates on party lists submitted for election. Meanwhile, it is rare today to find a company board without at least one female member, almost an informal quota, if only because it helps deflect criticism of the otherwise all-male board. Whether these profiles filter down through wider corporate and day-to-day lives is hard to measure. Sweden for example has the worst record of sexual assaults on women of any country in the EU; even allowing perhaps for a more open reporting system, that offers little by way of an indicator of diversity and tolerance.

And there remains a variety of views on the efficacy of quotas, whether it be in management or company-wide. Many women strongly oppose the idea, on the grounds that this does not reflect merit; a minority also believes that, without some powerful impetus of this sort, the process of equalisation will take decades.

This quota issue is particularly complex in the airline industry, as there are so many technical/specialist areas. We have earlier visited the complexity of the airline organisation, with its silos of activity and its inherently male-oriented operational areas. We also reviewed the perceived importance of operational experience in the credentials for a CEO, in asking the question "are women safe?" - as an operations background is often perceived as necessary.

Establishing quotas (as opposed to, perhaps, goals) is an unlikely option in engineering or pilot roles - or IT, or legal or financial for that matter. Where airlines might have graduate intake programmes for example, there is scope for management training across a range of areas, providing a better experience foundation for advancement. But this will rarely include the more intensely technical or operational areas. And, as referred to earlier, there is the generally lower level of mobility of women in cases where a broad experience platform includes a two or three-year posting as head of a country office. For a middle management woman who by now might have children - and whose husband is established in his own job - the opportunity might be only illusory.

Women who progress have worked at regional or start-up coalface

We have reviewed exceptions to this inhibitor of female opportunities. On balance, the women who progress more readily tend to have worked in regional or start-up airlines where the proximity to the coalface is greater. This means it becomes less important to help the woman executive move through different commercial experiences, because this track is anyway unavoidable.

From our sample of some 200 airlines around the world, these features show through in the proportions of women occupying senior roles. In most cases the newer or regional airlines have a greater percentage of women in senior positions. The differences are not as marked as perhaps would be expected - as noted earlier in this series, the more customer-facing, marketing-type profiles of LCCs in particular could appear. But there are nonetheless sufficiently clear differences across the board, and nowhere is this more marked than in the very high proportion of women in the marketing and planning roles in low-cost airlines.

Proportion of female managers by carrier type (%)


Forming networks has become an increasingly important part of the woman's road to advancement. Women's networks are now well recognised as near-essential to changing the profile of companies. Although most of the women interviewed actively oppose structured positive discrimination practices, they actively engage in relatively formalised female peer networks. These tend to be more structured than the longer standing and much more widespread male groupings - which have evolved informally and are perhaps not even regarded as networks by the men using them; they have been taken for granted, as a way of life.

Breaking into the boys' club

Men's formal networks are typically cemented through multiple contacts over years, becoming more valuable as they progress in their organisation. The networks are then often exaggerated and entrenched by CEOs' frequent tendencies to surround themselves with clones or yes-men - where women can sometimes be threateningly unpredictable. And, particularly when board membership is at stake, exclusively men's clubs have for example been citadels where formal and informal bonds are established; it can take many years to overcome the inheritance of these institutions. At the same time it was clear – and not surprising - in all interviews that the informal relationships, the casual, non-work discussions, were recognised as a vital part in the communications chain. Not participating in those informal boys' social discussions, perhaps even more than the formal company dialogue, can be a major disadvantage - and, because they are loose and undefined, they can be much harder to penetrate. Combined, the two types of network are very powerful. As Lufthansa's vice president of EU affairs, Regula Ottling-Dett, says: "There is such a strong network of boys - because outside too they have a circle of friends."

Capital Airlines' Zhu Kai works hard at the informal - and necessarily external - network. As chairman and CEO of a substantial Beijing-based airline, when asked if she is lonely at the top, she replies "I have my sister group, my network, all female." Not having the boy's club membership, this is a necessary relationship grouping. "It's that bit harder to talk. Men, they'll go out drinking and smoking and perhaps you don't feel like going out all the time. So the sister group fills that role."

Her sister group has guidelines. It is predominantly external and while it is made up of airline people, gatherings use no surnames or titles (which are used frequently in Chinese workplace relations), no work discussions, “just about ladies' stuff, family, children, make-up, healthy exercise... so they feel comfortable. If you talk too much about work, they feel obligated and they don't want to come. Next time I'm arranging a makeup demo." As with the informal boys' get-togethers, these non-work relationship development processes can be invaluable: "Once you have talked like this, make a phone call and you can do a million things," says Ms Zhu. Jetstar Asia CEO Chong Phit Lian has the same experience - "I do have a circle of professional women friends", although her Singaporean professional environment allows her to include men: "I find my network of friends - men and women - to be beneficial to my role as an individual and as a corporate executive." And then there are some barriers of informality, as she says, when talking about the sometimes easier lines of communication with women board members: "I used to have other female board members in my previous employment. I found some advantage in relating to them, as we also bump into each other in the toilets!"

Where women do establish their own partially closed networks, the risk is that they can be less than totally effective, if they are merely seeking to compete with the established, male-dominated networks - rather than engaging or penetrating them. But they do also help spread information and allow testing of ideas in a less threatening forum.

For airlines actively wanting to encourage diversity, this combination of informal and formal "club" barriers can be a real challenge. Whatever semi-formal workplace culture actions are taken, the extra-mural and much less identifiable groupings are near-impermeable. So airlines like Southwest and Air New Zealand and newer carriers such as AirAsia and Virgin Blue tend to rely heavily on institutionalising the internal diversity programmes; Southwest for example with its culture committees and a variety of other processes. (And see the interview in this issue with Air New Zealand CEO, Rob Fyfe.)

Mentoring becomes formalised

Mentoring is also a previously accidental activity that has recently been formalised, much along the lines of management theory of the 1980s, when Japanese business practices - often involving a retiring executive remaining on in an advisory and support role for (almost invariably) his replacement - were first adopted. But the informal mentor, the role model and guide, has been a feature of most successful executives, male or female. Mostly this has not been organised but developed spontaneously, often because the mentor had been similarly treated on his or her way up.

Virgin Blue chief commercial officer Liz Savage, whose mentor was Ray Webster, the founding CEO of easyJet, says: "Ray has been instrumental in helping me develop my career. I think mentors are a great idea for everybody. Full stop. Male/female. They're a great idea. It seems crazy, like in sport, where you wouldn't dream of taking on the top levels without a coach and someone to help guide you - so why wouldn't it be the same in business?

"I think it [mentoring] is particularly valuable for women. I think they probably get more out of it than the average male. I'm making a really sweeping generalisation here, but I think women are, by their tendencies, less adept and less practised at pushing themselves forward. So, particularly when you've got a male-dominated environment, because it's engineers and pilots - typically male professionals - who come into aviation management, I think a sponsor, a mentor in that regard, is critical. It's not that it helps you more than the next person, but I think it helps takes away the issue of gender. It helps neutralise gender."

Mentoring is rarely a luxury, and particularly for women, it is a sine qua non. Says Regula Dettling-Ott: "Having a mentor has been very important to me. I don't think I would have been able to progress if there hadn't been someone at each stage who believed in me enough to support me through."

Corporate culture must be fertile

In the past this was rarely a structured activity. Former Qantas and now Virgin Blue's head of government affairs, Jane McKeon acknowledges that “a number of very good managers over time have given me exposure and development opportunities and been generous with passing on their knowledge and experience. I would not call them mentors as such, but I would not be where I am today without them. When I talk to graduates or junior managers, I always tell them that I cannot stress enough the importance of seeking out good managers in your early years of work." 

And, as Vancouver Airport chair and former airline senior executive Mary Jordan says, of selecting a mentor, “It's kind of a mutual thing. If I'm looking to someone's style and really thinking about 'how did they manage to do this and what can I do like that?' Obviously you look to people whose styles you admire. If I'm seeking out advice - and people are always flattered when people ask you for advice - I would definitely seek out."

But the mentoring role still requires fertile soil to grow in. Above all there must be a corporate culture that allows the nurturing to lead somewhere. Mary Jordan again: " I was so fortunate to have great mentors, a lot of them men - and a corporate culture that I encountered that allowed me a lot of good opportunities regardless of gender." No amount of innovation in resolving gender imbalance can substitute for a hospitable corporate environment. And that must come from the very top.

This article is taken from Issue 3 of Airline Leader. Click here to view and subscribe to the full publication.

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