Skift Take

At the end of the day, airlines are customer-service companies and it will benefit their customers and operations to have leadership that better reflects who is flying today.

The number of women taking the reigns of large, small, legacy and low-cost carriers revealed that women account for fewer than 5 percent of all airline CEOs.

Only twelve out of the 248 airlines operating worldwide are currently led by women.

Of those, six women lead full-service airlines, four lead low-cost carriers, and two are at subsidiaries. The ten airlines are spread throughout Asia, Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, but no North American airlines make the list.

Most of the women listed below are the first females to lead an airline in their country.

One hundred years after the first commercial flight the industry’s most influential leaders fall short of reflecting half of the global traveler population.

Airlines With Female CEOs

Airline Name CEO Country Type of Airline
Air Asia Aireen Omar Malaysia LCC
Air Namibia Theo Miriam Namases Namibia FSC
CityJet Christine Ourmières Ireland Regional/Subsidiary
EasyJet Carolyn McCall UK LCC
Jetstar Group Jayne Hrdlicka Australia LCC
Kuwait Airways Rasha Al Roumi Kuwait FSC
Precision Air Sauda Rajabu Tanzania FSC
Syrian Arab Airlines Ghaida Abdullatif Syria FSC
TAM Airlines Claudia Sender Brazil FSC
Thomson Airways Chris Browne UK LCC
Transaero Olga Pleshakova Russian Federation FSC
Aerogal Gabriela Sommerfeld Rosero Ecuador Regional/Subsidiary

Fewer Female CEOs

The number of female airline CEOs has dropped from 15 to 12 in the four years since Airline Leader first looked into the deficit in 2010.

The earlier investigation suggested that innovative low-cost carriers like EasyJet were more welcoming to female executives.

“It is not greatly surprising that newer, 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, bearing many of the silent prejudices and built-in rigidity of the past,” Airline Leader wrote at that time.

While our research found that there is an almost equal number of low-cost and full-service airlines led by women today, the prejudices and perceptions of aviation as a male-dominated activity persist.

“It’s a boys’ game,” Marcia Ferranto, chief executive of WTS International, an advocacy group for women in transportation, told the Boston Globe last year.

“Boys were brought up with planes and trains and cars. You very seldom will see a little girl’s room with airplanes all around it.”

But the reason behind a lack of women leading airlines goes beyond stereotyping to include networking opportunities, siloed career tracks, and mentorship.

Of course, the deficit of females in C-level positions is not unique to aviation. If fact, aviation does better than other industries, believe it or not.

In the past 10 years, women represent only 2.8 percent of new CEO hires at the 2,500 biggest publicly traded companies globally, Fortune reported last month.

A total of 84 women have taken on the top role compared with 2,942 men.

Leadership From the Top

One method for encouraging women to enter the aviation industry, and stay in it, is by raising awareness of role models available to young women today.

“Like all industries, aviation needs to open up more to women, and particularly to retain women in the pipeline so we can see more women in senior leadership positions,” EasyJet CEO Carolyn Mccall said in an interview conducted by IATA for its ‘100 Years of Commercial Flight’ coverage.

“That is what will make the most change as these are the women who will be able to adapt the culture of companies to ensure more women stay in the workplace.”

A woman at the helm of an organization can attract more female employees as well as create opportunities that encourage them to pursue more responsibility.

For example, Olga Pleshakova has been the CEO of Transaero Airlines for 13 years after rising through the ranks from technical experts to director of airline services. In her IATA interview, Pleshakova touted the fact that almost half, or 47 percent, of its 11,000 employees are women.

“I think that aviation, an industry which is traditionally considered predominantly male, gives women great opportunities for professional and career growth,” Pleshakova says.

What Role Do Airlines Play?

Airlines are complex companies that include distinct segments from engineering to operations to finance and law; therefore, it’s important for the top executives to be able to understand and have experience in more than just one area.

This is where airlines have an opportunity to make sure it gives all employees the opportunity for growth and an on-the-job education.

As Mary Jordan, chairwomen of the Vancouver Airport Authority and former executive at American Airlines and Canadian Airlines reflects on her own career, she remarks how fortunate she was to work for airlines that were willing to move her outside of the field where she started.

She now advises other young people to seek jobs at similar companies.

“It’s getting out of your comfort zone often and trying new roles that can make you more competitive for those senior roles. Ask about an organization’s ability and willingness to encourage women to take risks and give them opportunities to get out of their comfort zones and have a broad range of experiences.”

However, when asked about the percentage of women CEOs in aviation, industry organization IATA was unable to provide a comment on what airlines were doing to create more opportunities and how the gender disproportion impacted business. Instead, it vaguely pointed to a larger competition for managers and leaders.

“The challenge for aviation is to attract new managerial and leadership talent – female and male – at a time when there is enormous competition from businesses and economic sectors that did not exist 15-20 years ago,” a spokesperson replied.

Without widespread recognition and dedication to growing as a diverse industry, it will remain difficult to shift the status quo on an individual level.

“I think role models are important as younger women think about career paths, but finding role models can be a challenge in aviation,” reflects Jordan.


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Tags: airlines, executives, women

Photo credit: Three of the nine women CEOs at airlines worldwide. From left to right: Carolyn McCall, Aireen Omar and Chris Browne. Flickr

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