When it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), Venari Partners believe in practising what we preach. As a champion of diverse values and experiences, we are passionate about sharing our vision with our network and helping clients to meet their targets on diversity. This can encompass many different areas – for example, gender, race, and class, among others.
Last year, we pledged to provide an update each January about gender diversity in aviation boards. We use publicly available information about leading carriers’ non-executive directors (NEDs) to analyse female representation – or lack thereof. While aviation, like many industries, has traditionally seen women being underrepresented in managerial and executive positions, this whitepaper continues our work examining the gender diversity gap at board level specifically.
The importance of the board of directors
Boards are just as crucial as the C-suite for organisations to thrive. Organisations with active DEI programmes in place increasingly want the board to reflect their commitment to diversity – and for change to come from the top down, with the CEO placement being a board mandate. There has been some progress globally in recent years – women now make up 10.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs, with the figure falling to 5.8% in Fortune’s Global 500 list – though we are still far from seeing gender equality at the highest echelons of the corporate ladder.
Over the past few years, we have seen increasing focus on, and demand for, gender diversity in the aviation industry. However, this is typically concentrated on areas such as operations – as well as, of course, the C-suite. The dearth of gender diversity at board level does not receive as much attention as we believe it should. A company’s board is essential for directing the organisation’s work culture, direction, and priorities. If women are present as NEDs, the likelihood of having female representation at C-level also increases – and we see this trickle-down effect as being an essential area for the aviation industry to address.
Our yearly update
We are pleased to pick up where our previous study left off, examining 411 NEDs of 40 airlines across the following regions*:
*Of the 411 board members studied this year, 312 were men and 99 were women. The average number of board members across the airlines was just over 10. Data accurate as of 31 December 2023.
Last year, we reported that females were outnumbered by a ratio of almost one to four across the boards of carriers we surveyed in 2022. Has anything changed since then – and what does the future look like?
Our findings for 2023 show a slight increase on last year’s figure. We have found that women comprised 24% of all board members – an increase of two percentage points on the results of last year’s whitepaper.
Gender split by region
The statistics differed from one carrier to another – and, most notably, across regions. This year, once again, European airlines had the highest proportion of women board members, at 29%. APAC was next, with the 24% figure edging out the equivalent number for North America by 1%. Representation in the Middle East and South America, meanwhile, rounded out our research, with women NEDs at 15% and 14% respectively in these regions.
Gender split by airline type
How does the situation compare in full-service and low-cost carriers? Interestingly, we recorded 24% female representation on the boards of both airline types. This figure has remained constant for full-service carriers, though female representation on low-cost airline boards has increased by 5% since our last study.
What have we learned from this year’s report?
While female representation on aviation boards has increased slightly since our last study, there has not been quite as much of a change as we had hoped for. Still, there have been some trends and developments this year that we have observed with interest, and which may yet have an influence on airline board composition going forward.
This time around we have reported just one airline with no female board members, against five last year. We see this as hugely positive news and worth celebrating. It is the single most significant change since our first whitepaper. Meanwhile, eight carriers analysed (20%) appointed at least one new woman board member. We hope to see these figures increase further in next year’s report.
Separately, in 2023 we have also recorded four female chairs (i.e., 10% of the boards we examined).
There has been progress – but we want to see more
In the UK, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) notes that women should represent at least 40% of a company board, and at least one of the senior board positions (chair, chief executive, chief financial officer, or senior independent director). The proportion of UK board seats occupied by women on the 585 all-share listed companies rose from 36% to 40% from 2022 to 2023.
The latest Women in the Workplace study by McKinsey and LeanIn.Org reports that 28% of C-suite talent is female. The report begins by noting that despite women being more ambitious than ever, and notwithstanding ‘some hard-fought gains’, female representation ‘is not keeping pace.’
Seven of the 40 airlines we have analysed had at least 40% female board members (three had gender parity and, on two boards, women were the majority). In an ideal world, there would be at least gender parity on the boards of all major airlines worldwide; while there is clearly a long way to go before we get anywhere near that figure, we believe that the FTSE figure of 40% should be the minimum benchmark for airlines to meet in the makeup of their NEDs. Diversity needs to come from the top down; for organisations to affirm their commitment to DEI, they must begin by reflecting this at board level. (It is worth noting that North American carriers in particular emphasise providing demographic information for their boards, which might be an interesting area for us to examine in the future.)
We are keen to see what 2024 brings. With a variety of M&A activity in the pipeline – for instance, JetBlue and Spirit, as well as Alaska and Hawaiian Airlines – we are likely to see some movement on the boards of a number of airlines this year. Indeed, next month JetBlue COO Joanna Geraghty will become the airline’s first female CEO, and will sit on the airline’s board from February onwards. Elsewhere, we hope to see greater gender diversity on airline boards in the Middle East and South America in particular, as well as more women chairs globally.
Another area we will observe with interest is the ongoing conversation around environmental, social, and governance (ESG) in aviation and how boards will approach the issue going forward. Alongside diversity, ESG is arguably the most pressing issue facing aviation. The industry contributed 2% of global carbon emissions in 2022, and while initiatives such as IATA’s plan for net zero by 2050 represent steps in the right direction, there is a growing desire from businesses and passengers alike for carriers to invest in ESG and make aviation more sustainable.
One of the five key findings from the 2023 Annual ESG Preparedness Report, by the independent think tank The Sustainability Board, detailed how ‘women remain at the forefront of sustainability governance’, with female board members almost two-thirds more likely to be ESG-engaged. However, the same report shows a slight drop in overall ESG engagement among NEDs from 2022-23, highlighting the importance of female board members in tackling the issue. Airline boards’ sustainability efforts – and the involvement of women NEDs in these – is something that could certainly be interesting to examine in next January’s diversity whitepaper.
Venari Partners is committed to promoting gender diversity – and supporting women to succeed – in aviation. This whitepaper represents our second round of research, following our pledge to analyse the number of women on airline boards each year. We are planning to release more whitepapers from our aviation practice soon – stay tuned for further developments.
In 2022, we established REACH, a LinkedIn group for inspirational (and aspirational) female leaders in aviation. As important as we believe this group to be for empowering women in the industry, we felt the need to do more – and, given REACH’s focus on C-level roles, we thought it would be fitting to examine the state of play across airline boards.
We work with airlines globally, supporting them with senior executive and non-executive hires. We are also acutely aware of the importance of DEI and are proud of our ability to provide diverse shortlists for our clients. We look forward to continuing to support companies in their journey towards a more diverse industry.
If you would like help meeting DEI targets for your aviation business, please reach out – we’d love to hear from you.
Head of Client Relations
Aviation & Aerospace Executive Search
+44 207 078 7625
Aviation & Aerospace Executive Search
+44 207 993 2035