Women in Aviation Leadership Roles: What This Means for Gender Equity and Sustainability
In 2019, women represented only 3% of airline CEOs. Since then, the number has doubled, with the most recent numbers from IATA indicating that women make up about 6% of airline CEOs. This growth is encouraging and is indicative of the change we will see in the next few years. Since IATA released its March 2022 report, that percentage has likely grown with CEO appointments in the last month, including Marjan Rintel at KLM, Güliz Öztürk at Pegasus Airlines and Dina Ben Tal Ganancia at El Al.
At 6%, the airline industry is broadly in line with global averages for women in CEO and upper management positions, which despite remaining low, is increasing incrementally. According to Catalyst.org, in 2021, 26% of all senior managing directors were women, compared to only 15% in 2019, and the Fortune Global 500 reported an all-time high of 23 women CEOs or 4.6 percent in the same year
To address the lack of gender diversity in leadership in the airline industry, in 2019, IATA launched its “25 by 2025” initiative. The voluntary, industry-wide “25 by 2025” campaign focuses on improving female representation, with signatories committing to reaching 25% of their leadership positions being held by women by 2025, or by delivering a 25% improvement in their numbers by that year. The program focuses on improving female representation throughout the management pipeline which is a crucial step towards seeing more women appointed to CEO and other upper management roles. McKinsey and LeanIn.org partnered on a study in 2021 that found that since 2016 women are still continually promoted to manager at far lower rates than men making it nearly impossible for companies to lay a foundation for sustained progress at more senior levels.
Companies that hire women into upper management roles are ahead of the curve and stand to profit from their actions as studies show that diverse teams are more creative and more profitable. A 2017 study from the online decision-making platform Cloverpop analyzed around 600 business decisions made by 200 teams across various companies. The study showed that gender-diverse teams of three or more people outperformed individuals up to 73 percent of the time when making business decisions. In contrast, all-male teams made better business decisions than individuals only 58 percent of the time.
As the airline industry shifts its focus to addressing the climate crisis and hitting industry-wide net-zero targets, the importance of women stepping into these leadership roles is critical. Over the past decade, multiple studies have shown that gender-diverse leadership teams perform better toward sustainability targets. A 2015 study looking at the gender composition of CEOs and board of directors at Fortune 500 companies and their effect on environmental performance found that firms characterized by gender-diverse leadership teams are more effective than other firms at pursuing environmentally friendly strategies. Additionally, according to a 2011 study, gender-diverse boards are more likely to achieve higher environmental ratings than other firms in the corporate sphere.
The recently appointed CEO at KLM, Marjan Rintel, creates a compelling case to support the studies. The appointment of Rintel is a strategic choice for KLM as it looks to become a more sustainable and profitable airline and hit its target of cutting CO2 emissions by 15 percent by 2030. Rintel, coming from her position as CEO at Dutch Railways (NS), would have likely been a part of the team that oversaw NS, KLM, and Thalys joining forces on their progressive sustainability program, replacing one of KLM’s daily services between Brussels and Amsterdam Airport Schiphol with seat capacity aboard the Thalys high-speed train instead. The program was expanded further at the end of March 2022 and shows the type of creativity and partnership building needed in the industry to achieve its net-zero goals. Whether or not Rintel had a direct hand in developing the project, her appointment at KLM, and the importance of sustainability in the airline’s mission indicate her ability to lead strongly from the front on sustainability issues.
It is truly exciting to see women, at last, be given leadership opportunities in an industry that for so long has been deemed an “old boys club.” We are still very far from gender-balanced workplaces in aviation being the norm, however, initiatives like “25 by 2020” as well as programs to get girls and young women interested in STEM and careers in aviation, including the “Girls in Stem” program and Air France’s “Feminizing Airline Professions” event, are steps in the right direction.