Why don’t women run airlines? Part 1: 94% of airlines are led by men


CAPA last reviewed this issue in our inaugural issue of Airline Leader back in 2010, five years ago. On International Women’s Day on 08-Mar-2010, CAPA observed that “you could have counted on the fingers of one hand the female CEOs of commercially significant airlines across the world.” It would be nice to say that had changed.

The airline industry is notorious for its “boysy” facade, however the massive attitudinal and structural change forced upon this industry over a turbulent decade have done much to open doors for women –at least in theory. In 2010, 15 airlines had appointed a female to the role of CEO or MD. By 2015, that number ticked to… 18.

Of those, five women are employed at group airlines: LCC AirAsia, has three women in leadership positions, while Avianca has two. By way of a yardstick, IATA represents 252 airlines alone - using this number, that implies only 6% of those represented have appointed a woman to the senior executive level position.

It would perhaps be a little too trite to link this to the under-performance of the industry – but it does give pause for reflection.

Aviation is lagging most other industries in gender balance at the top levels

Whether aviation is in fact so greatly different from other industry sectors in its gender mix is no longer debatable; most industries have charged well ahead over the same period; McKinsey&Co reports a 30% p/a increase in women appointed to executive roles between 2011 and 2013. An EY study in 2013 found while the airline industry generally exceeds in appointing women to board or executive roles, 0% of S&P1500-listed airlines had appointed a female CEO.

Airlines reinforced the objectification of women up until 1990s, and one need only cast an eye back to the 70s and 80s to see some of the most poignant examples. Engineers ran airlines. But the “big boys toys” image has given away to a customer-facing, consumer-driven business where people skills are gaining ascendancy over engineering. The issue of female representation in management is not isolated to airlines alone, but a key differentiator is the velocity of change - one that appears lost in our industry.

While the airline industry rarely tracks in a predictable trajectory, it would be false to attribute the poor rate of inclusion to the volatility of the operating environment. Indeed, this feature should logically accelerate the rate of change within the ranks rather than cement old habits.

Newer, customer-oriented, airlines are much more likely to be led by women

When we reviewed the profiles of over 200 airlines around the world, the contrast in leadership diversity was amplified. The reasons for the changes and their likely direction are perhaps not so intuitive. It is not greatly surprising that more customer-oriented airlines sport a higher complement of women, while older, larger companies still labour beneath the overhang of the old engineering and flying days, seemingly bearing many of the silent prejudices and built-in rigidity of the past.

Whether the old will change and the new ones retain their differences is not as obvious as perhaps it should be. Unlike our previous analysis, there was in 2015 no longer a clear divide between LCCs and FSCs in terms of leadership, split almost evenly with seven women in leadership roles at LCCs and nine at FSCs. Given the much larger number of FSCs, the imbalance remains however. The remaining positions were held at charter and regional carriers.

Asia Pacific led the charge with 6 CEOs, followed by four in Europe, three in South America, three in the Middle East and two in Africa. Not a single airline in North America appears on our survey with a woman CEO.

Women in airline CEO roles, Apr-2015



Business Model



Aireen Omar



AirAsia Zest

Joy Caneba



Philippines AirAsia

Marianne Hontiveros



Avianca Ecuador

Gabriela Sommerfeld Rosero



Avianca Peru

Nani Garrues




Carolyn McCall


United Kingdom


Fatima Beyina-Moussa


The Republic of the Congo

Jetstar Group

Jayne Hrdlicka



Kuwait Airways

Rasha A. Alroumi



Orient Thai Airlines

Manassanant Tantiprasongchai



Precision Air Services

Sauda Rajab



Spring Airlines

Zhang Xiuzhi



Syrian Airlines

Ghaida Abdullatif



TAM Airlines

Claudia Sender



Transaero Airlines

Olga Pleshakova



TUI Group

Chris Browne




Sarra Rejeb



Yakutia Airlines

Olga Fedorova



Any “policy” that excluded more than 50% of the entire population from senior management roles should at least require robust justification at management and board level. There is no “policy” here of course; equally there may be many good reasons why women could find aviation a less attractive career option.

Achieving gender balance is not a moral issue nor is it one of principle.

McKinsey&Co, in a survey of global executives, noted 89% of all mid or senior-level women want to reach top management compared with 81% of men – it’s not merely an issue of determination. Women in positions one step away from the C-suite are even more likely to agree that they have top management ambitions.

CAPA's Americas Aviation Summit 2015 in Las Vegas, 27/28 April will address the issue of "Why don't women run airlines?" with a panel of leading industry women executives.  For more information, please see: CAPA Summit Las Vegas

What the McKinsey survey also showed was that women are much less certain they will reach the top – 69% of senior women expressed confidence in this goal, compared to 86% of their male peers. McKinsey also found that a favourable environment and cultural factors weighed twice as heavily as individual factors in determining how confident women felt about reaching top management.

While men believe gender diversity helps performance, they don’t necessarily support it

With results like those found in the airline industry it’s not hard to see that there is a significant talent pool being missed. Another more poignant example is while men believe teams with significant numbers of women perform better, few recognise the challenges women face.

Men are less likely than women to see value in diversity initiatives and more likely to believe that too many measures supporting women are unfair to men. Additionally, while nearly all male and female executives express some level of agreement that women can lead as effectively as men do, male respondents are not as strongly convinced.

Board representation may be more valuable than corporate quotas

But criticising leaders who don’t reflect this in their corporate philosophy implies the need for someone impartial to make that call – and to apply it. easyJet’s CEO Carolyn McCall told Management Today: “I'm against quotas because of their tremendous potential to cause a backlash and sets things back still further… Scandinavia is different from here (the UK) - it's smaller and has always had a culture of equality when it comes to issues like paternity leave. But there has to be a better balance on boards. It's the pipeline of female executive talent that we should focus on.”

Ms McCall also indicated a challenge for women to re-enter the workforce: “Many women come out of the career structure, especially after having their second child. You could be out of the workforce for three to five years at a time when you would have been available to be considered for director level. A directorship is the first step into gaining an executive appointment, so you’re at risk of missing the chance to go on and become a CEO.”

Ms McCall said this challenge is a result of childcare arrangements and explained women may lack the confidence to put forward a business case for flexible working arrangements: “Employers should encourage women on maternity to stay in touch, and when returning to work consider job shares. Or they could welcome back returning mothers after a two-year break by saying: ‘When you're ready to come back, pick up the phone and we’ll offer you an equivalent role’… It's now time for women to keep their head above the parapet.”

Full service airlines tend to be union heavy and fragmented in silos

So what is the best way to approach what is, at best, a complicated issue? The business of running a full service airline has often involved heavy involvement with trade unions, themselves typically male dominated and not typically an area welcoming for women. These walls have however started to crumble as the airline model has changed and expanded, especially among start-ups and in developing markets.

Established airlines are also usually characterised by career “pipelines”, or silos, reflecting the various functionalities of the complex company. This makes for difficult communication, regardless of gender or other representation, but it is also confining. If the pipeline you happen to be in goes all the way to the top, you have a chance. If not – usually the case for non-operational roles – the ceiling can be quite low.

The good news is that the approach globally is changing, and airlines must surely follow – even if there has been little change in the past 5 years. The presence of women in executive ranks is steadily becoming an indicator of success. An airline that advances women may prosper (or not) because of the female presence – but more likely it is the broader culture which opens those doors for females that makes the company a more effective competitive entity.

Being gender-blind, as well as open on other cultural levels, sounds like a compelling argument for greater efficiency. And in aviation, where such a stark industry transformation is occurring, there should be clear advantages to be had.

McKinsey&Co reported the experience of Sodexo’s CEO Michel Landel, who found teams with a male-female ratio between 40% and 60% produced results that are more sustainable and predictable than more unbalanced teams. Within this, gender-balanced teams were more engaged, produced more satisfied customers and generated greater profits. The company also found that a greater prevalence of women in the middle ranks increased the pipeline of candidates for executive positions, highlighting the importance of systematically addressing gender balance throughout the entire organisation.

If these findings are generally valid, it is surely time for more airlines to recognise the reality of the environment – airlines are service businesses, customer service businesses, often with demographics skewing toward majority female.

This compounds the absence of women in decision making levels of the business. New, gender-blind airlines will have no need for positive discrimination. If two main ingredients are cultivated - ability and attitude - then diversity follows. Southwest co-founder, Chairman Emeritus and former CEO, Herb Kelleher, and its President Emeritus Colleen Barrett put it succinctly: “hire for attitude, train for skills”. If a candidate’s demeanour is wrong, he – or she – will not be hired. After that, the criterion is capability. As Ms Barrett says, only partly tongue in cheek, “Herb ‘appreciates’ women; the only time Herb doesn’t see gender is when it comes to performance.” But they’re not all that way. Southwest is one of the two long-term most financially successful low cost airlines in the world.

The fundamental point is about wanting to have everyone involved. It’s not an option

The bottom line, if the Southwest example is relevant – and surely it must be: it’s not so much about having women in the company. It is about the attitude that wants to have women in the company. Or, more accurately, that wants everyone to be involved; women are one part of that.

A level of blindness is needed towards anything but the person’s attitude and capability – backed up by active, preferably informal, corporate practices.

But of those, the right attitude is not optional; it is an essential ingredient. For most large, established airlines, making a change of this size is a big ask, to say the least. To adopt a piece of Irish advice, “if you want to get there, you wouldn’t want to be starting from here”.

It will be much easier for this culture to permeate a new airline, but changing course among some of the decades-old behemoths will not be easy. Here more forceful methods may be needed.

Part 2: "What women do in airlines" will be published shortly

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