Women on Board

In an industry as traditionally male-dominated as aviation, APEX exists as an enclave where women have made their mark.

Attend the Women Leaders in Aviation Networking Lunch at APEX EXPO 2019

There are a number of names tied to the beginnings of the Airline Entertainment Association (AEA). But none more to thank than Cindy Tarver of Billboard Music In The Air, who John N. White, past president and esteemed editor of Avion magazine, called “the greatest hero of that time.”

Once the idea for an annual in-flight entertainment (IFE) meeting was cemented over lunch with Claus Jensen of Thai Airways International, Tarver dedicated herself to the cause of organizing and securing sponsorships (mainly from her own company) for the initial 1979 event. She then persuaded Billboard to underwrite the many miscellaneous costs of founding the association. As the years passed, she served on the board numerous times, spearheaded the creation of the association’s Technology Committee, and took up positions at various member companies, including Avicom, Rockwell Collins and Transdigital Communications.

Of course, if you asked Tarver about the early days of AEA, she’d wax poetic about how instrumental people like White, John McMahon of Inflight Services, and Harriet Korn of Trans World Airlines, were. And she’d be right – it was a family effort. But if that family were to name a matriarch, it would likely be her.

In later years, Tarver served as an inspiration to younger generations of women in the industry. “I was impressed by her knowledge of the industry and the respect others had for her,” says Mary Rogozinski, who served as World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA) president from 2002 to 2004 and as a board member in the years preceding and following that period. “I have always considered Cindy a mentor and a friend,” she continues. “For many years, I fondly referred to her as my mom.”

Cindy Tarver

Cindy Tarver during her days at Avicom. Image via APEX Archives

Despite the airline industry’s notoriously male-dominated culture, Tarver was joined by a number of high-ranking female board members. Over the years, more than one-third of the association’s boards have been led by female presidents, with women making up at least half of the boards most years between the late 1980s and mid-2000s. At their most visible, women outranked men nine-to-four in 2000.

While today’s association management team makes a concerted effort to level the gender playing field, back in the day, equal representation was more circumstantial than intentional. “IFE had been more of an afterthought for the airlines, which, quite frankly, allowed women the opportunity to grow and excel in leadership,” explains Tarver. 

Until the advent of IFE, few women were part of airline leadership, because few women had studied engineering. But with IFE initially falling under the purview of customer care, the path was cleared for women, Tarver explains. “This brought, and still brings, a lot of women to the association’s events and was likely the reason so many women joined the board,” she says. Christine Ringger of Swiss International Air Lines, who served on the board from 2006 to 2011 and as president in 2008–2009, agrees, adding that there may have been more women in the content part of the industry than in most other parts because “choosing content wasn’t always seen as such a sexy, blokey thing to do.”

Ringger speculates that there may be one more reason female leadership took root on the board. “The way I see it, you will always have more women in these positions because women are the ones who do; they are the ones who make things happen,” she says. “It was the women of the association who were rolling up their sleeves and getting things done. I’m not saying there weren’t men doing a lot of work, but there was an attitude among the women to move things forward, to progress.”

Judi Bishop and Kathy Libonati at a WAEA conference session. Image via APEX Archives

The view, it seems, was even shared by White, says Karen Schipper of El Al Israel Airlines, who served as president of the 1999–2000 board. “John used to say to me, ‘If you want a job done well, give it to a woman,’” she recalls. “In those days, there were a lot of women on the board and in the higher positions.”

In one case, Pam Ryan of Sony Trans Com and then Spafax, who served on the board from 1990 to 1993, remembers being at one of the conferences and a male colleague looking around the room in amazement. “‘Wow,’ he said. ‘Look at all these women and all the notes they’re taking. What will they do with so many notes?’ And he wasn’t taking any notes,” Ryan laughs.

In the early days, before the association was professionally managed and was still very much community-driven, being part of the board meant doing a fair amount of administrative legwork – taking notes, booking venues, organizing floorplans. And perhaps this sort of housekeeping wasn’t seen as especially “sexy, blokey” work, to borrow Ringger’s words.

Whatever the case, being a member of the board also gave women the chance to hone their leadership skills. “This was a place where they could plant their feet. They knew the business and could focus on leading, rather than just being another worker bee,” Ringger says. Schipper agrees, adding, “I learned so much from being an active participant on the board and especially as president. You learn to speak in front of large audiences, run board meetings and get many opportunities to prove yourself.”

Sophie Vossenaar of KLM, who served as president in 2000–2001, says her experience on the board proved useful later in life. (She left the airline in 2003 and went on to hold senior management positions in the nonprofit sector.) “My membership on the WAEA board was, for me, an alternative to management training,” she explains. “Being part of a board made up of people from very culturally diverse backgrounds was interesting, and I also learned a lot from going through a tender process for the management of the association.”

Under such female stewardship the association did grow, but not without the hurdles endemic to the time. “There were glass ceilings everywhere in the world, which explains why it took us so long [eight years] to have a female president,” Tarver says. “We were still a product of our times.”

The glass ceiling remains to this day, and perhaps has been felt even more acutely in recent years as airline company structures evolve. “As IFEC decision-making moves from marketing to tech ops and tech procurement teams, I’m seeing more men represented and fewer women,” Rogozinski says. Although women at airlines are still more prominent in marketing departments, more and more are joining technical departments, she notes. As for APEX’s member vendors, Rogozinski says they aren’t quite as women-centric as the association itself.

It is over a decade since women outnumbered men on the association’s board of directors, but balance is being slowly restored. In 2018, of the six members on the newly inaugurated Board of Governors (a group of airline CEOs appointed to help the industry define its goals) only one was a woman: Claudia Sender of LATAM. “This year, we already have four female CEOs confirmed for the Board of Governors,” says Maura Chacko of Spafax, who’s been on the board of directors since 2015.

At this year’s EXPO, Chacko hopes to see the male CEOs address how they plan to encourage more women into leadership roles – a question that was directed solely to Sender last year. “I don’t think the onus should always be on the other women leaders,” Chacko says. “We all need to take ownership of it.”

“Women on Board” was originally published in the 9.4 September/October issue of APEX Experience magazine.