Skift Take

The history of how women ended up serving snacks rather than selecting new routes is one that applies to almost all businesses, but Branson is one of the most outspoken in the industry that sees a need for change.

Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson recently became the first LinkedIn Influencer to have 1 million followers, and in the interview commemorating that achievement he touched on the role of women in the boardroom. Branson encouraged companies to strive for a true 50-50 split of men and women on their boards.

The absence of women in leadership positions is an ongoing discussion, most recently gaining traction after Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg took Davos to task for its chauvinism. The role women play in the aviation industry; however, could be considered different than those of other sectors as women are the primary decision-makers when it comes to leisure travel.

A study by Microsoft found that 57 percent of women that came across their advertising sites were the primary travel decision-makers in their households, and Web in Travel came to a similar conclusion in online travel booking and planning.

Branson; however, isn’t just playing his LinkedIn followers with feminist-friendly statements: Virgin AmericaVirgin Australia, and Virgin Atlantic have some of the highest percentages of women present on their boards and executive teams.

Thirty-six percent of Virgin Australia’s executive team, 30 percent of Virgin Atlantic’s, and 27 percent of Virgin America’s are women.

Exec team

These numbers are higher than the percentage of women on each airlines’ boards, which are 12.5 percent, 25 percent, and zero respectively.

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Worth noting is Virgin America’s completely male board. It is the newest airline in the group, being founded in 2004, and is also only one of two U.S. airlines with entirely male-driven boards.

France Fiorillo, Senior Vice President of People and In-flight Services at Virgin America, said in statement, “As someone with 30 years experience in this business, aviation has always tended to be a male-dominated industry, but as a new airline, we’ve worked hard to ensure we have the best talent from across the country with that diverse range of perspectives. That said, we recognize there is more to do – so we continue to make key investments in recruiting, internal mentoring and other programs that support that goal.”

U.S. Airlines

We compared Virgin America to ten other U.S. airlines to see how closely Branson’s call for diversity squares with the current reality of airline management.

Virgin America and Spirit Airlines are the only two U.S. airlines that we looked at to have zero women on their boards. Alaska Air and US Airways came the closest to 50-50 boards with 27 and 25 percent of women in each group. The boards of JetBlue, American, and Southwest are 20 percent female.

It’s interesting to note that not a single airline’s boards had more than 27 percent of women; nowhere near Branson’s call for 50-50 representation.

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Marianne Lindsey, a spokesperson for Alaska Airlines commented on the board’s diversity. “We are proud of the ethnic and gender diversity represented on the Alaska Air Group Board of Directors.  Leaders of the board and of the company share the conviction that including people of diverse backgrounds makes our company better by ensuring differing viewpoints are considered…” She did not go into greater detail regarding the selection or hiring process.

Top management teams

Virgin America is much more diverse within its executive team. With 27 percent of its executive team made up of women, Virgin is only bested by Southwest where 29 percent of decision makers are women. Spirit does not have a single female in either group.

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Alaska Air’s executive team also has a strong gender mix with women making up 24 percent of its leadership ranks.

Hawaiian and American each employ executive teams that are 20 and 22 percent female, respectively. Women make up less twenty percent of the teams at Delta, US Airways, JetBlue, or United.

There is no correlation between executive teams and boards and the percentage of women on each. Approximately half of the airlines had stronger female representation on executive teams, and the other half had more females serving on the board.

Branson’s comments in full

The video of Branson’s full interview with LinkedIn Executive Editor Daniel Roth, as well as the edited quote from the video are below:

In the end, it’s down to individuals. I would encourage companies to work really hard towards getting a 50/50 split of women on their board — even to the extent of encouraging politicians to actually change laws to force a situation to where there’s 50% women on boards. Because in countries where they’ve done it — like Norway and Sweden — the companies seem to have benefited from it. But in the meantime, all of us who own companies must try to increase the size of our boards to make sure we get more women on the boards.


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Tags: branson, virgin america, women

Photo credit: Virgin flight attendants at the launch of Virgin Atlantic's route from London to Cancun. Virgin Atlantic

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