The industry has been employing more women in the C-suite for some time now, but new data hints at the pace of change quickening after years of glacial progress, with positive steps continuing into the first few months of 2024

The number of women working in senior executive roles at the world’s top passenger airlines and groups grew at the fastest rate in seven years’ worth of data during 2023, albeit men still dominate in every role except chief people officer.

That was among the headline findings from FlightGlobal’s latest survey of gender diversity at the 100 largest carriers and groups by passenger traffic, which it undertakes to assess whether progress is being made on an issue that many carriers and airline industry association IATA have cited as a priority in recent years.

Venessa Hudson Qantas

Source: Billypix

Hudson now leads Qantas Group

While the proportion of the 600 surveyed roles taken by women – 106, or 18% – means the industry still has huge work to do if gender parity is an ambition, the latest data marks the first significant acceleration in the growth of female representation among executives since the survey was launched in 2017. Previous years had seen a steady increase of one percentage point per year, whereas the latest data marks a three percentage point increase, reflecting 14 more women employed in the 600 executive roles surveyed.

Partly driven by increases in the number of women employed as chief financial officers and chief information officers – or in equivalent roles – the rise in women working in the C-suite came despite the number of female chief executives falling year on year, to 11 out of 100 on 31 December 2023, versus 12 as 2022 ended. Even in that area, there have been positive developments since the survey data was collated.

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In terms of high-performing geographies, Australia continued to set the pace, with Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Australia all led by women as 2023 ended. Elsewhere, JetBlue Airways continued to be the standout performer when the whole C-suite was considered, with four of the six surveyed roles taken by women – an achievement unmatched by other carriers.

The data also shows how the increase in the number of women in the wider C-suite is crucial to increasing the number of female chief executives, given the industry’s strong preference for internal appointments from existing executive teams.

Notably, the chief executive role was the only one of the six to see a negative trend year on year. The biggest rises in female incumbents were seen in the chief financial officer (+4 at 17 out of 100), chief information officer (+3 at 11) and chief people officer (+7 at 50) positions. There was a small rise from a low base when it came to female chief operating officers (+1 at 5), while the number of women working as chief commercial officers was flat at 12 out of 100.

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It continues to be the case that the chief people officer role has an outsized impact on the data, with female incumbents working at 50 carriers – almost half of the 106 women recorded in the survey.

SENIOR ROLES

Still, even with the chief people officer role removed from the data, there was an acceleration in the number of women taking senior roles year on year, albeit from a lower base, with 56 of the 500 surveyed roles (11%) having female incumbents, versus 49 (10%) at end-2022.

Moreover, the number of carriers employing no women in any of the six surveyed roles fell by three year on year to 36.

And despite the fall in women leading carriers year on year (-1 at 11 out of 100), the news in the first couple of months of 2024 that Joanna Geraghty has succeeded Robin Hayes as chief executive of JetBlue Airways, Mitsuko Tottori would succeed Akasaka Yuji as Japan Airlines president and Carolina Martinoli would succeed Marco Sansavini as Vueling chief executive means that deficit could be wiped out in 2024 data. Jayne Hrdlicka’s departure from Virgin Australia offsets some of that positive progress, however.

JetBlue Airways chief executive

Source: Syracuse University

Geraghty is the first woman to lead a major US carrier

The fall in 2023 came after Christine Ourmieres-Widener’s departure from TAP Air Portugal, Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao’s relinquishing of her role leading VietJet to become the carrier’s chair and Katarzyna Lewandowska ending her spell as interim chief executive of LOT Polish Airlines.

Those departures at the top 100 carriers were partially offset by Vanessa Hudson succeeding Alan Joyce as Qantas Group chief executive and Dorothea von Boxberg becoming Brussels Airlines chief executive.

Hudson and von Boxberg joined Lynne Embleton at Aer Lingus, Anne Rigail at Air France, Annick Guerard at Air Transat, Hrdlicka at Virgin Australia, Stephanie Tully at Jetstar Group, Marjan Rintel at KLM, Guliz Ozturk at Pegasus, Annette Mann at Austrian Airlines, and Dina Ben Tal Ganancia at El Al as a female chief executive at a top 100 airline or group as of 31 December 2023.

Pegasus chief executive

Source: IATA

Ozturk was a high-profile figure at last year’s IATA AGM

Those chief executives took a variety of routes into the top role, although all but two were internal appointments of people already in the C-suite of the airline or a wider group. Of the roles held immediately before taking their current positions, two were chief executives in another industry (Hrdlicka and Rintel), two were chief executives of other, smaller businesses within the same airline groups (von Boxberg and Embleton), one was a chief financial officer (Hudson), one was a chief operating officer (Guerard), two were chief commercial officers (Ozturk and Ben Tal Ganacia), two were leading the customer functions at carriers (Rigail and Tully), and one was head of corporate responsibility (Mann).

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Across all carriers in the top 100 airlines, the most common position held immediately before becoming chief executive was another chief executive or president post (at 40 incumbents). That was followed by chief operating officer or chief commercial officer (both at 12 incumbents), and chief financial officer (9). Some 81 of the 100 incumbents were appointed from within the airline industry.

Looking at the wider C-suite, JetBlue was again ahead of the pack in employing four women in the six surveyed roles, and burnished its diversity credentials further with this year’s announcement of Geraghty’s appointment as chief executive. There was, however, an increase of two in the number of carriers employing women in half of the surveyed roles, with Air New Zealand, AirAsia Group (Capital A), Cathay Pacific, Qantas Group, Philippine Airlines, Aer Lingus and Southwest Airlines all in that category at end-2023.

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It is noteworthy that among the strongest performers are carriers that have been led by chief executives who have openly talked about strategic commitments to improving diversity in its various forms across their businesses, such as Robin Hayes at JetBlue and Alan Joyce at Qantas Group (both were replaced by women when they stepped down).

North American carriers saw the highest proportion of women employed across the six surveyed roles, albeit the number was flat year on year at 26%. Some 13 of the 22 women employed at the 14 carriers surveyed were in the chief people officer role – a position that is arguably the least senior among the six considered.

Elsewhere in the C-suite, North American carriers employed a woman as chief executive in one instance, as chief financial officer in three instances and as chief information officer in three instances. There were two female chief operating officers employed in the region and no women in the chief commercial officer role.

WAY AHEAD

Just one of the 14 North American carriers – Frontier Airlines – had no women working in the six surveyed roles, putting the region way ahead of other geographies by that measure.

Among few appointments involving women in 2023, Julie Lamontagne was appointed as Air Transat’s chief people officer in February.

European carriers employed women in 21% of the surveyed roles, which is a rise of two percentage points year on year. Across the 33 carriers surveyed, some 41 women were employed, including 20 as chief people officer or equivalent.

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European carriers are particularly strong contributors when it comes to female chief executives, accounting for six of the 11 identified globally. They also account for five female chief financial officers, two chief operating officers, six chief commercial officers and two chief information officers.

Seven of the 33 European carriers and groups included in the survey – 21% – had no women working in the six surveyed roles, putting the region in second place globally by that measure, behind North America (7%).

Among noteworthy appointments in the region in 2023, Joana De Epalza became chief financial officer at Vueling in July.

EVEN MIX

Asia-Pacific carriers employed women in 17% of the surveyed roles – a rise of four percentage points year on year. Some 35 women were employed at the 34 surveyed carriers. Only 12 of those women were in the chief people officer role or equivalent, meaning the Asia-Pacific region delivers a more even mix of roles in which women are employed.

The region contributes three women in the chief executive role (all in Australia), nine female chief financial officers, one chief operating officer, five chief commercial officers and five chief information officers.

Asia-Pacific lags the other major airline regions in terms of carriers or groups employing no women in the six surveyed roles, with 16 of the 34 surveyed (or 47%) in that category.

Among noteworthy appointments in the region in 2023, Jo-Ann Tan became chief financial officer at Singapore Airlines in June, while Anna Isabel Bengzon became chief financial officer at Philippine Airlines in August and Lavinia Louis took on the same role at AirAsia X in September.

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Carriers in Africa (8%), Latin America (6%) and the Middle East (8%) continued to lag the major airline regions by some distance in terms of the proportion of women in the C-suite, albeit their sample sizes are significantly smaller.

Examples of female airline leaders outside the top 100 carriers include RwandAir’s Yvonne Makolo (also chair of IATA’s board of governors), Uganda Airlines’ Jenifer Bamuturaki, HK Express’s Jeanette Mao, QantasLink’s Rachel Yangoyan, Cape Air’s Linda Markham, Indonesia AirAsia’s Veranita Yosephine Sinaga, Atlantic Airways’ Johanna a Bergi and Hahn Air’s Kirsten Rehmann.

Rwandair chief executive

Source: IATA

Rwandair’s Makolo is current chair of the IATA board of governors

Compared with the wider economy, the airline industry is increasingly closer to trends elsewhere, depending on geography, partly thanks to the recent acceleration in female appointments.

The latest Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey & Company, released in October 2023 and covering businesses in the USA and Canada, showed 28% of C-suite jobs have female incumbents – a figure two percentage points higher than that recorded by this survey for the airline industry in that region.

LEADERS REVIEW

Elsewhere, the UK’s recent FTSE Women Leaders Review showed only 21 female chief executives across FTSE350 companies in 2023, which equates to 6%. While the airline industry is ahead of that figure, it is more in line with the data for FTSE100 companies, which employed women as chief executives in 10 cases.

Broader data for the FTSE350 shows leadership roles being taken by women in 35% of cases, putting the airline industry some way behind (21% among Europe airlines and groups).

Fortune 500 Europe data from late 2023 showed 7% of businesses having female chief executives.

Region-wide data for Asia-Pacific is hard to come by, but surveys often echo airline industry data in showing a few key markets – Australia and Singapore, for example – being drivers of change in the region, while others see limited progress.

A LinkedIn survey from 2023 shows female incumbents in 38% of C-suite roles in Singapore, 30% in Australia and 16% in India.

NOTES: Airline Business’s survey of gender diversity in the top 100 airlines is based on publicly available data. The primary sources are company websites, financial reports, LinkedIn and Airline Business data. Data is for 31 December 2023. The survey considers men, women and those who identify as non-binary. Given the fluid nature of employment, the survey can only give an indicative snapshot of the industry. For the fourth year running, the 100 airlines and groups surveyed are drawn from FlightGlobal’s 2020 ranking of carriers by full-year 2019 revenue passenger-kilometres (RPKs). This is to avoid the data being skewed by the impact of Covid-19 on the RPK data. Where airlines ceased operations between surveys, or in the rare situation where data on incumbent executives is unavailable, carriers from just outside the top 100 have been incorporated into the data. Similar roles of equivalent seniority are considered where the specified job titles are not used. Where a vacancy exists, the previous incumbent’s gender is recorded.

YEAR STARTS WITH POSITIVE TREND

The first quarter of 2024 has brought largely positive developments in terms of women being appointed to lead top airlines, offering hope that the current year might bring another significant step forward in the gender mix among senior executives.

JetBlue Airways announced in early January that president and chief operating officer Joanna Geraghty would succeed Robin Hayes as the company’s chief executive from 12 February.

This makes Geraghty the first woman appointed to lead a major US carrier.

She has worked for nearly 20 years at JetBlue and became chief operating officer in 2018. She held other roles including executive vice-president of customer experience, chief people officer and associate general counsel.

Elsewhere, Japan Airlines announced in mid-January that it had appointed its first female leader, following the promotion of its chief customer officer Mitsuko Tottori to helm the carrier.

Tottori, a JAL veteran of almost 40 years, will assume the role of president and representative director from 1 April, taking over from Akasaka Yuji, who will become airline chair.

The move marks the first time a Japanese major airline is being led by a female president, and is also JAL’s first president with a flight attendant background.

Meanwhile, Spanish low-cost carrier Vueling announced in late February that IAG’s chief people, corporate affairs and sustainability officer Carolina Martinoli would become its next chief executive – replacing Marco Sansavini, who is bound for Iberia.

Martinoli was previously brand and customer experience director at British Airways, and also worked in the chief customer officer and marketing director roles at Iberia.

Offsetting that progress to an extent, in mid-February Virgin Australia chief executive Jayne Hrdlicka announced her departure after almost four years running Australia’s second largest airline.

Virgin Australia

Source: BillyPix

Hrdlicka was chief executive of Virgin Australia until her departure in February

Hrdlicka, also a former chief executive of Qantas low-cost unit Jetstar, was appointed to lead Virgin in 2020 after it emerged from financial administration and was acquired by Bain Capital.

Her replacement had not been named as of mid-March.

In late March, Greater Bay Airlines – which is not among the top 100 airlines – announced the appointment of chief operating officer Liza Ng as its new chief executive.