There were many reasons I was looking forward to visiting Brazil last week, but near the top of the list was to hear Claudia Sender speak.
Last year, Sender was named CEO of TAM, Brazil's largest airline. It has experienced many challenges since merging with Chile's LAN in 2012, and Sender was brought in 10 months ago to tackle those challenges.
For an industry that is in many respects enlightened and progressive, the travel sector has a terrible record when it comes to appointing women to CEO positions. Hospitality, cruise, tours -- given a few moments, I can come up with the names of one or two women who have risen to the top, though sometimes "former CEO" precedes the names.
Even in retail, where women have for decades been on the front lines of distribution channels, they are significantly underrepresented. Only 10 of the 53 CEOs on the Travel Weekly Power List, which ranks travel sellers that move more than $100 million of product annually, are female.
Modern commercial aviation is later to the party than the others. Carolyn McCall was appointed to lead EasyJet in 2010, and then, two years later, Sender ascended at TAM.
I was in Brazil to attend and speak at the 1,200-delegate Forum Panrotas, which the country's new tourism minister described in the opening ceremony as "the Davos of Brazil travel." Organized by the trade publication Panrotas, it drew a major presidential candidate, the head of Google in Brazil, CEOs of the largest tour operations and car rental companies, heads of online travel agencies and other large travel sellers, senior hospitality leadership, fledgling entrepreneurs and mainstream journalists.
Sender was on a panel with the CEOs of Gol, a competing airline, and CVC, the country's largest tour operator.
The moderator was an interesting choice: the CEO of Brazil's largest executive search firm. He raised the topic of women in leadership roles, saying he could count the female CEOs of major Brazilian companies on one hand.
Sender did not shy from the topic.
"Even more than the market in general, the aviation industry is very chauvinistic," she said. "When I attend meetings with my husband, everyone comes up to him and asks what he does. He just says, 'I'm her husband.'"
She made a case for diversity in hiring, and not only in respect to gender. "When we think the same way, we have only one solution to problems. The world is diverse, and we should take advantage of people with different nationalities and backgrounds to solve problems."
She feels strongly that it is the responsibility of companies and societies to "create opportunities."
"We have several initiatives underway," Sender said. "It's what a company can do and has to do. There has to be a set of public and private policies to stimulate the number of women as leaders. The message has to come from the top."
Earlier in the discussion, on the topic of hiring practices, Luiz Eduardo Falco, CEO of CVC, had said that he likes to hire single mothers because, being sole earners, they were highly motivated.
Sender had a different perspective.
"I like to hire mothers," she said. "They have a sense of prioritization compared to other people. They can differentiate what's urgent and what's not. And they can do five things at the same time."
Social movements tend to advance in spurts rather than increments -- a case in point being the recent broad and swift legal recognition of gay relationships -- but when they do occur, it's often the result of dogged and patient work that has occurred under the radar for decades.
There are many strong women in the travel industry who have pointed out to me the stubborn boys-club nature of our industry. And there's an organization, founded by Laura Mandala of Mandala Research, that hopes to effect real change. Women in Travel and Tourism International (Witti) met April 6 in Chicago ahead of the U.S. Travel Association's IPW trade show.
Witti (womenintravelandtourism.com) is set up primarily as a business networking organization, with an emphasis on mentoring and lead sharing. But Mandala would like to strengthen its advocacy role. A former vice president of research for U.S. Travel, she hopes to use research to define the landscape of women in the industry.
Detailing where women work, how much they are paid and how they view their career prospects vs. males will, she hopes, move the industry toward that breakthrough moment when boards fully understand the importance for their own companies to create leadership opportunities for women.
It was inspiring to hear Sender speak and speak out. The travel industry is poised to become the largest in the world, and on the surface, its articulate (and self-interested) promotion of cross-cultural awareness and open-mindedness positions it perfectly to take a leadership role in elevating gender equality. In order for that to happen, however, the existing boys-club mentality must be challenged.
Mandala's organization can help. And one wishes Sender success not only in the challenges she faces at TAM but in her challenge to a broader, deep-rooted status quo.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.