IATA meeting points to dearth of women in airline C-suites

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A photo of IATA's board of governors, which is made up of airline chief executives, features 25 men and just one woman: Flybe's Christine Ourmieres-Widener.
A photo of IATA's board of governors, which is made up of airline chief executives, features 25 men and just one woman: Flybe's Christine Ourmieres-Widener.

SYDNEY -- The aviation industry suffers from a dearth of women in top executive positions. But while industry executives say the shortfall is on their radar, they also assert that it can't be resolved overnight.

"It's going to take a long time to fix some of the issues that are inherent in our society," Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said at IATA's Annual General Meeting here last week.

The issue of the under-representation of women in airline management took center stage at the worldwide gathering of executives after IATA posted a photo of its board of governors on Twitter on the first night of its three-day conference.

The photo featured 25 men and just one woman: Christine Ourmieres-Widener, CEO of the regional European carrier Flybe.

IATA's board of governors is made up entirely of airline chief executives.

Comments posted in response to the tweeted photo generally made note of the hard-to-miss gender imbalance.

"Can I humbly suggest that someone puts 'how we achieve greater gender diversity amongst senior management in aviation' on the agenda,'" one commenter wrote.

According to IATA, just 3% of airline CEOs are women. Nor is the situation much better when it comes to other top leadership positions in the industry. Women hold just 8% of CFO posts and 3% of COO positions.

In all three of those roles, women are less represented than they are in other industries. For example, 12% of CEOs overall are women. 

Overall, women hold just 16% of senior executive posts at North American airlines, and that's better than carriers in the world's other regions are faring. In the Asia-Pacific region, for example, women hold just 7% of senior executive posts.

Air Namibia CEO Mandi Samson (left), one of Africa's three female airline CEOs, and Mylene Scholnick, a consultant at ICF Aviation and a past president of the International Aviation Women's Association, take part in a panel discussion moderated by CNN's Andrew Stevens at  IATA's Annual General Meeting.
Air Namibia CEO Mandi Samson (left), one of Africa's three female airline CEOs, and Mylene Scholnick, a consultant at ICF Aviation and a past president of the International Aviation Women's Association, take part in a panel discussion moderated by CNN's Andrew Stevens at IATA's Annual General Meeting.

IATA isn't blind to the issue. In 2016, the organization launched a diversity initiative designed to bring more women onto its executive team. And the subject of diversity within the broader airline industry was already among the panel topics slated for the general meeting prior to the ruckus caused by the Twitter photo. 

Still, concerns about gender inequality didn't stop IATA from moving ahead Tuesday with the appointment of Qatar CEO Akbar Al Baker to hold its rotating chairman post for the next 12 months. Al Baker, who last summer had to apologize for calling U.S. flight attendants "grandmothers" while comparing them with Qatar's flight attendants, whose average age is 26, said in his first news conference as chairman that women are not up to the task of being CEOs. He later apologized.

Sitting next to him, IATA director general Alexandre de Juniac noted that the new IATA board now has two women with the addition of Air Europa CEO Maria Jose Hidalgo Gutierrez. It's not enough, de Juniac said, but it's progress nonetheless.

Women have won a few other halting victories at the top of the commercial airline industry in recent weeks. During the IATA general meeting, the SkyTeam alliance named as its CEO Kristin Colville, formerly an executive with Delta's cargo unit. Last month, the United Continental board made former FAA administrator Jane Garvey its first female chair. Also last month, JetBlue promoted Joanna Geraghty to president, putting her in charge of day-to-day operations.

Speaking on a discussion panel at the IATA meeting, Air Namibia CEO Mandi Samson, who is one of Africa's three female airline CEOs, said that to bring broader changes, airlines need to focus on supporting women more, especially when it comes to disciplines such as piloting and engineering, which have traditionally been dominated my men.

"We really have to make sure to promote women in the technical areas," Samson said.

Mylene Scholnick, a consultant at ICF Aviation and a past president of the International Aviation Women's Association, said that in her 25 years in the industry she's seen improvement on the issue of gender equality, but it hasn't come fast enough.

Airlines, she said as she shared the stage with Samson, need to be more proactive in mentoring women, supporting women during maternity and encouraging women to return to their careers after they have taken a leave to have children.

Qantas' Joyce said that it's up to each company to put programs in place that encourage women to stay in the workplace after they have children.

Forty percent of Qantas directors are now female, Joyce said, due to efforts the airline has made to embrace diversity. Drawing from a large pool has enabled the carrier to excel, Joyce said.

"If you are not tapping into diversity and inclusion, you are going to lose out," he warned.

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