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Why don’t women run airlines? Part 2: What do women do? A better corporate culture needed

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.

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. 

In Part 1, we very briefly touched on the wide variety of career “pipelines” or “silos” available within airlines. In this second part of our report on women in aviation, we look at the roles women typically play, as well as seeking any signs of evolution and where this may come from. Our survey of 200 of the world’s airlines has covered the main players, while not including all of the smaller ones.

In some cases, full information was not available, but the following summary is a largely accurate depiction of the profile of senior management in the global industry. It is interesting to note that although there are not many actual CEOs of these legacy-type carriers, a few of them have been quite good at filling their senior management ranks with women.

What do women do in airlines? - distribution of roles, Apr-2015

 

COO

CFO

Marketing/
Planning

General Counsel

Comms/
Govt Affairs

CIO/IT

Customer Exp/FFPs

Inflight

Cargo

Human Resources

Other

Board

Total

Total

3

18

47

16

45

7

18

30

1

58

102

164

509

% of Total

0.58%

3.53%

9.23%

3.14%

8.84%

1.37%

3.53%

5.89%

0.19%

11.39%

20.03%

32.22%

 

Women are now more prevalent in boards, but there's still work to do

In each case the criterion for inclusion was a direct report to the CEO of the airline. Women predominate, as in most companies, across marketing, human resources, miscellaneous SVPs as well as – surprisingly – in board members, where the highest representation is seen. When we last looked at this topic in 2010, women dominated in human resources roles, making up one quarter of all executive positions. This has since fallen to just over 11% while representation amongst boards has increased to 32.2%.

Below this was the sufficiently vague ‘other’ category at 20% - this comprised mostly of administrative/technical roles such as safety officers and integration managers – followed by HR, marketing and communications. Women are still pointedly absent from COO, legal, CIO/IT and cargo, all of which reported less than 3.5%. Tellingly, only three COOs were identified – again the same number as 2010. This aligns with our last report that found the number of CEOs was largely unchanged, but promisingly this is improving below them.

Top 10 airlines for female representation, Apr-2015

 

COO

CFO

Marketing/
Planning

General Counsel

Comms/
Govt Affairs

CIO/IT

Customer Exp/FFPs

Inflight

Cargo

Human Resources

Other

Board

Total

Air Astana

 

 

1

 

1

 

 

1

 

1

8

 

12

Alaska Airlines

 

 

1

 

 

 

 

 

 

1

3

5

10

Lufthansa

 

1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1

 

6

8

Air Canada

 

 

1

 

1

1

 

 

1

1

1

1

7

Finnair

 

 

 

 

1

 

 

1

 

1

1

3

7

Hawaiian Airlines

 

1

 

 

1

 

1

1

 

1

1

1

7

Jetairfly

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1

6

7

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines

 

 

1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1

5

7

South African Airways

1

 

 

1

 

 

 

 

 

1

2

2

7

Southwest Airlines

 

1

 

 

1

 

1

 

 

1

 

3

7

Some regions are better balanced than others but this is often due to an outlier rather than a trend

The hardest regions for a women to make it to the top echelons are in South America, Africa and the Middle East – all of which have less than 10% of total female representation, although they did outperform in some areas. The Middle East accounts for almost 20% of all general counsels at airlines, and Africa is responsible for two thirds of COO’s – although globally there are only three!

In North America, the more “traditional” female roles predominate: between them, customer services, human resources/personnel, communications and inflight service roles account for just under half of all the direct reports.

One interesting feature of the North American region’s senior women is that four are CIOs or equivalent. Outside North America there are only three other CIOs 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.

Europe was identified in CAPA's 2011 report as one of the poorer regions for female representation, but since then it has charged ahead counting in excess of 15% in all categories and between 30 and 40% in others.

The standout is in board representation – European airlines alone account for just under 45% of the world's women on airline boards, almost 40% of customer experience and inflight roles, 37% of communications and marketing and 37% of general counsel positions. They fare well elsewhere too, with 31% of HR and 27% of CFOs.

The best place for a European woman to work for an airline is in the East.

Air Astana has 12 women amongst its senior ranks, Air Serbia, El Al and Transaero (with CEO Olga Pleshakova) counts five while Uzbekistan Airways has three. Eastern European carriers alone account for 46 of the European total of 168, or 25% - impressive given the comparatively smaller number of airlines in the region.

CAPA's Americas Aviation Summit, Las Vegas, 27/28 April, features a session dedicated to the topic of women at management level in airlines - see CAPA Americas Aviation Summmit

Leadership Panel: Why Don’t Women Run Airlines?


The Americas airline business is notably short on women CEOs - and the US is one of the standouts in its lack of female executives, outside traditional roles in human resources and marketing. Since CAPA conducted extensive report in its Airline Leader journal four years ago, the tiny group of women airline CEOs worldwide has actually reduced in number.

Perhaps it is simply that women are smarter than men in selecting the industries that offer greater stability. But the lack of diversity in the top executive ranks is a serious challenge if airlines aim to compare themselves with top S&P industrials over the long term.  

  • What factors prevent women from rising higher in airline ranks?  

  • Does the boysy atmosphere of the industry repel women from entering the airline business?

  • It is said that companies with several women on their boards generate more high level women executives. Should progressive airlines seek out more women board members?

Moderator: Korn Ferry, Senior Client Partner, Frank Morogiello

Panellists:

  • FedEx Express, Managing Director, Regulatory Affairs, Nancy Sparks
  • Holland & Knight, Partner, Anita Mosner
  • InterVISTAS, President & CEO, Deborah Meehan
  • Runway Girl Network, Editor & Publisher, Mary Kirby
  • ARC, VP and General Counsel, Kathleen O'Neill

North Asia trends behind the rest within the Asia-Pacific

In Asia-Pacific the ratios are quite high, accounting for more than one third of all women in CFO, marketing, communications, customer experience, inflight and board positions. Almost 25% are in HR and other positions within the region. But this disguises some local differences – the representation is heavily skewed toward Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

North Asia fares better than it did previously, but there are still quite a number of airlines with zero female representation in the executive ranks. There are exceptions however: Transasia, Spring Airlines, Air China, China Southern, Japan Airlines and Hong Kong Airlines all have between five and three women in executive roles.

In Southeast Asia and South Pacific, numerous airlines ranked highly. The Virgin Australia Group was a standout - Virgin Australia with six prominent women, Tigerair with five, with competitor Qantas with four, although there were still outliers – Lion Air among them – with none.  

But otherwise there is globally a remarkable – or perhaps unremarkable – similarity in the low levels of female senior executives. The rest of the list comprises of airlines with three or less women in management roles. Indeed, quite a few had none.

Selection of airlines with no female representation at management level, Apr-2015

 

COO

CFO

Marketing/
Planning

General Counsel

Comms/
Govt Affairs

CIO/IT

Customer Exp/FFPs

Inflight

Cargo

Human Resources

Other

Board

Total

Aeromexico

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Biman Bangladesh Airlines

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

China Eastern Airlines

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

EgyptAir

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Emirates

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

GoAir

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

LAN Airlines

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Saudia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

SriLankan Airlines

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Wizz Air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

There's no longer a gender divide between LCCs and FSCs, with the gap closing operationally too

Apart from the southeast Asian LCC proportions noted, neither is there any consistently significant difference between LCCs overall and full service airlines – although individual airlines like Southwest show much higher ratios of direct female reports. The absence of operational functioning women (COOs) probably correlates to the rarity of women commencing roles in the operations silo.

This is changing as some of the (relatively newer) women pilots start moving up through the administrative ranks as Georgina Sutton has done at Qantas Airways and now Jetstar, where she was appointed chief pilot in late 2014.

There are certainly many more females on flight decks today. Similarly, if this story were being written twenty years ago, it is unlikely that senior women’s roles would have extended far beyond customer services, inflight and HR department heads - which today account for about 20% all female positions at the senior levels.

The recent ascension of women legal and financial leaders suggests a modest (but growing) reflection of the numbers of graduates of law schools and business colleges. In western systems women are now frequently in the majority in these university faculties, generally performing better than their male neighbours.

As the number of women on boards increases, so should the number of CEOs and COOs

Perhaps a person who understands the customer best should be close to the top of the heap in a more competitive environment. This shift towards a maturing, consumer industry could be expected to favour more female executives, along with a better overall balance, one that is not overtly biased towards “white male managers, aged 45.”

And as Asia and the Middle East occupy a greater share of the global aviation spectrum, those middle-aged white males in Chicago, Paris, London and Cologne should be chasing a more rapid evolution towards diversity – if only in the interests of commercial advantage.

As for board members, this is an area which has accelerated ahead – now accounting for almost 35% of all women in executive positions. As this proportion increases, there should be a gradual increase of women in CEO/COO roles as women ascend through various business levels into executive positions and subsequently filter into more boards.

The key to change is in the corporate environment. Signs are positive, although change is slow

No amount of innovation in resolving gender imbalance can substitute for a hospitable corporate environment, and that must come from the very top.

Between 2010 and 2015 we saw a disappointing amount of change at the CEO/COO level, but organisational structure under this has changed rapidly. Women are increasing in numbers on airline boards around the world and growing their presence across a number of operational silos. There are promising signs for a more even footing ahead.

In this respect we are probably in the third phase of the airline metamorphosis: from an engineering activity, through improved operational awareness and now into a more solidly marketing and people activity.    

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