The dearth of women in leadership positions is felt throughout all sectors of travel - including in the aviation industry, which has a particularly male-dominant image to shake (just 5% of all pilots are women, for example).
Compared to other areas of travel, aviation is also perceived as often slower to latch onto technology innovations, which many carriers are aiming to rectify with a renewed focus on improving the customer experience through areas like retailing.
Having a diverse talent pool - including more women in senior and executive roles - is critical to driving these technology advancements, says Elena Avila, executive vice president of airlines, Americas, at Amadeus, who spoke with PhocusWire after moderating a panel on Women in Aviation at the Aviation Summit 2019 in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.
“A technology group is no longer just a group of geeks doing back-end development; it’s rather a lot more than that,” Avila says.
The panel brought together four female airline CIOs, including Catherine Dyer of Air Canada, Charu Jain of Alaska Airlines, Maya Leibman of American Airlines Group and Kathleen Wayton of Southwest Airlines, as well as Dr. Ellen R. Stofan of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, to discuss the technology priorities for airlines as well as what the industry needs to do to cultivate women talent.
The tech agenda
How the role of IT in the aviation industry - specifically for airlines - is changing was a key theme from the panel, Avila says.
“IT is changing to be very much more at the core of and driving business strategies,” she says. “The link between IT and business is stronger than ever.”
Airlines are changing their business models to become more of a retailing player, and they need the support of the industry to get there, she says.
“IT is now - if not leading, certainly close to leading - business decisions and agenda, which I don’t think is always necessarily well-known.”
All CIOs on the panel were in agreement that using tech to transform the guest experience is a priority for their businesses.
Cybersecurity, too, is a major agenda item for the executives, particularly as the industry moves more and more digital.
Closing the gender gap
Up until recently, the airline industry has been very operational in nature, with men filling roles such as technicians, pilots, ramp agents and so on, Avila says.
That male-dominant perception has carried on, and it’s one many male leaders may not be as aware of. “They’re not as open to try and include more diversity in their teams, so they push and promote similar types of roles,” she says.
“We’re late to the game in aviation, but we are becoming more customer-minded, customer-focused and digital … and that starts to demand, frankly, a broader set of quality in a leadership team, which may be more critical thinking or a bit more emotional intelligence or a bit more self-awareness."
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In order to promote and retain women in the industry, all panelists agree it starts with education, not just at the college level - where many airlines have scholarship and work initiatives in place - but even younger, at the primary school level.
“It’s about trying to make sure young girls are exposed early to these types of roles … so they’re not unconsciously biased toward more traditional female roles. There was a strong consensus [among panelists] that it’s something that needs tackled from early days,” Avila says.
She says it’s also about creating role models and making those role models visible, plus aviation companies need to consciously look for a balance in job candidates, which if they have trouble accomplishing on their own, they can look to outside recruiting firms for help.
“Not using women to their full potential is negating 50% of the talent pool,” Avila says. “The fact that we’re having so many discussions is great - it’s creating consciousness around it - but we now need to make it really, truly happen.
“It will take some time, clearly, because we need to bring all these young generations in and start working for us. It’s not going to happen overnight.”