Vice-President of Corporate Communications at the oneworld alliance, Ghim-Lay Yeo, says women in aviation need to offer each other support in their aspirations

An airline executive invited to speak at a conference arrives at the event’s registration desk, but the organizers have trouble locating the speaker’s name tag. They eventually find it, filed under a different name. The executive, a senior vice-president at a global airline, is a woman. The organizers had assumed her husband was the speaker.

Such an experience is not unusual for the airline industry’s senior female executives, who are significantly outnumbered by their male counterparts. Gender biases faced by female leaders are among the multitude of factors contributing to the lack of female airline CEOs, based on in-depth research I carried out on the topic at the University of Warwick.

Locked out from the start

Earlier in 2019, I interviewed 18 executives in the airline industry, including 12 women at C-suite or vice-president level. With a diversity of airline industry experience—ranging from less than five years to more than 30—my interviewees shared their insights into why female leaders are so poorly represented at airlines.

Despite women constituting a substantial portion of air transportation workers—United States and European Union government statistics show that women make up more than 40% of employees in the sector—female airline CEOs are few and far between. Only three airlines out of the world's top 100 carriers are led by women, including Air France’s Anne Rigail who was appointed in 2018.

The male-dominated top tier of the airline industry, coupled with the sector’s tendency to look within when hiring leaders, make it difficult for women to gain traction in moving into senior roles. The industry’s traditional preference for leaders with airline operational experience also places women at a disadvantage as they are vastly outnumbered to begin with in areas like flight and technical operations.

With airlines’ leadership ranks being overwhelmingly male, female leaders sometimes find themselves in awkward and upsetting situations. One senior executive had her promotion questioned on stage at an investors’ conference, while another had doubtful looks cast her way during meetings with aircraft suppliers.

A turning tide

The relentless 24/7 operating nature of the airline industry works against women when it comes to hiring and promoting. Airlines perceive women, particularly working mothers, as 
less willing to accommodate the around-the-clock demands.

While female CEOs remain the exception at airlines, the majority of my interviewees expressed optimism that the tide is turning, albeit very slowly. High-profile appointments like Rigail’s promotion give them hope, and a heightened awareness of the issue is the beginning of meaningful discussions.

To advance more women into leadership roles in airlines, the industry can begin with a few steps. Firstly, ensure a diverse slate of candidates when hiring. Secondly, women in the industry need to form stronger ties among themselves.

Unlike the longtime male executives in the airline sector, many of the female leaders I interviewed did not have relationships with one another and in some cases, did not know who their peers were.

Strengthening networks among women in the industry will provide female leaders the support they need and more crucially, encourage other women to aspire to leadership roles. Research has shown that exposure to successful female leaders can empower leadership behavior in women, and counter gender stereotypes.

Seeing is the first step to believing.

  • Ghim-Lay Yeo’s MBA thesis on the lack of female CEOs in the airline industry, which was awarded a distinction grade, was supervised by Associate Professor Maja Korica at Warwick Business School