Comments like the one uttered in a press conference earlier this week by Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker give me pause on encouraging my daughter’s pursuit of a career in aviation.
At a meeting of airline chiefs in Sydney, Al Baker, who is the new chief of the International Air Transportation Association (IATA) said of airline leadership, “Of course it has to be led by a man, because it is a very challenging position.”
I agree with Mr. Al Baker on several points. Airline chief executive officers must deal with tremendous pressures—from pilot and mechanic unions, international operations, fluctuating fuel prices, stockholder expectations and high-profile customer service issues. The challenge specific to women does not lie in any of those complexities. The real challenge is in overcoming an ingrained good-old-boy network mentality.
And just when we think we’re making strides, someone like Al Baker makes a statement that shows just how far we still have to go. While he apologized later and identified more than 33-percent of Qatar’s staff is female and more women than men are in the airline’s training program, the underlying prejudice remains the same.
When I asked my daughter, who is in early stages of flight training what she thought about the comment, she immediately assumed the executive was old.
“My generation doesn’t seem to be as hung up on gender or color but looks at the qualifications and character of the leader in question,” she said. She does recognize that the path to success as a woman in aviation may have more obstacles—and she welcomes the challenge.
“I don’t mind being held to high standards—whether it’s because I’m a woman or because I am in a prestigious flight school. I just want to be the best I can be at whatever I decide to pursue.”
Women are infiltrating the top roles, albeit slowly. JetBlue named Joanna Geraghty president and chief operating officer in May, making her the highest-ranking female executive at a large U.S. airline. Tammy Romo serves as CFO at Southwest, and United recently appointed a female chairman, Jane Garvey.
If we begin adding in smaller, regional airlines, like JetStar in Australia, I might need two hands to count female executives. That’s progress, right?
Competition for highly skilled workers is increasing, and our industry is falling behind.
In order to challenge the status quo in the airline industry—or more broadly in aviation—all the stakeholders need to have open minds about women filling key roles from second officers in the cockpit to chief executives in the board room.
We need to staunch the exodus of women who train in aviation and then leave for another field. We do that by having hard conversations about creating corporate cultures where women and men can thrive, by celebrating the leadership of women who have broken a 40,000-foot glass ceiling, and by applauding the men who encourage them to fly.
How are you going to help keep the young women entering today’s aviation workforce engaged and prospering?