Air Namibia Mandi Samson

Air Namibia Mandi Samson. Image via IATA

APEX Insight: Gender diversity in the airline industry took centre stage at last week’s IATA Annual General Meeting, in Sydney, and not always for the right reasons.

Although 50% of the personnel intake in the airline industry is female, as positions become more senior, the number of women starts to fall away. Less than 5% of airline CEOs are women and only 3-5% of pilots worldwide are women. On IATA’s 31-member board of governors this year there are only two female CEOs – María José Hidalgo Gutiérrez from Air Europa and Christine Ourmières-Widener from FlyBe – albeit double the amount from the previous year.

Some airlines are doing well in this area, with Alan Joyce, CEO of Qantas noting that 40% of his direct reports are female, although he concedes there are some areas – such as engineering and pilots – where female representation is less. Qantas is putting initiatives in place to address this, including outreach programs at schools to encourage girls to take courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“It’s up to every individual company to put these programs in place,” Joyce said, adding that it results in the “best team, best outcome”. Fellow Australasian carrier Air New Zealand has 40% female representation on the airline’s board and is getting close to 50:50 in management, said Chris Luxon, CEO.

African carriers also appear to be bucking the traditional trend, with Air Namibia acting managing director Mandi Samson saying that her airline has four females in management positions while three airlines in Africa have female senior executives. “For once Africa is leading in something,” Samson said.

“For once Africa is leading in something.” – Air Namibia

Mylene Scholnick, past president and board member of the International Aviation Women’s Association (IAWA) said the change has to come from the top of an airline and become a process, with airlines needing to do more in the areas of education and accelerated training, starting with schools.

ICAO secretary general Dr. Fang Liu told delegates that aviation has not been very successful at providing an open and inclusive working environment for women: “In China, for instance, there is a proverb which states that women hold up half the sky, but in aviation today, whether we are talking pilots or airline CEOs, women are only making up one twentieth of these positions.” Airline CEOs must make gender parity a personal priority, driving it from the top, she insisted. ICAO will hold the first Global Aviation Gender Summit in Cape Town, South Africa, in August, in an effort to accelerate gender equality.

While there was much positive discussion of the subject, the event ended on a low note when Qatar Airways CEO and incoming IATA chair of the board, Akbar Al Baker, responded to a journalist’s question on the lack of gender equality in the industry, particularly in the Middle East. “Of course it [Qatar Airways] has to be led by a man because it is a very challenging position,” Al Baker said.

Al Baker later offered his “heartfelt apologies for any offense caused,” pointing out that Qatar has been a pioneer in the Middle East region when it comes to gender equality. According to Al Baker, women comprise almost half of the group’s workforce, Qatar was the first airline in the region to employ female pilots, one of the first to train and employ female engineers and it has female representation through to senior vice-president positions.

“Qatar Airways is made stronger by its female employees for whom I hold nothing but the highest regards,” he said, adding that he supports all IATA initiatives to promote the advancement of women in the industry.