Air Transport World

The drive for diversity. (women in airline management, part 2)(includes related articles on workplace harassment and discrimination, maintenance opportunities for women and sexual orientation issues at airlines)

Women are finding a smoother path into airline management as carriers beef up opportunities

Although their numbers are still small, women are making their presence felt in the upper echelons of U.S. airline management. And those who have "made it" say the opportunities for females who would like to follow in their footsteps are good.

And recent research indicates airlines could benefit from elevating women into management at a greater rate. For example, a study by human resources consultant Lawrence A. Pfaff & Assoc., covering 1,059 managers from 211 organizations, showed that women rated higher than men as managers and leaders when evaluated by their bosses, the employees they supervise and themselves. In fact, men graded lower than women in every one of 20 areas measured, including managing change, planning and decisiveness.

Typical of the career paths opening to women is that of Mary Jordan, who was elected president of American Eagle Wings West in June after a stint as VP-human resources at American Airlines, and who heads a carrier that serves 36 cities from hubs at Los Angeles and Dallas/Ft. Worth with a fleet of 56 aircraft.

Jordan joined American as a financial analyst in 1983 "through one of our entry level paths, the MBA recruiting program." After progressing through a variety of managerial positions in the finance department, "I made a fairly major functional move into human resources, which ... gave me a whole new perspective on the company from the employee standpoint, and I discovered that I enjoyed dealing with employees."

As she advanced up the ladder to VP in charge of the 450-member department, she also discovered that she would like to learn more about airline operations, "but I frankly thought it was maybe too late." When the Wings West opportunity came along, "it was too good to pass up," and she has found her new job "even more interesting than I expected. We run it as an independent company ... and I'm responsible for every aspect of the business. Very operational but there are many challenges with respect to long-term planning, sales and marketing, personnel. And we have our own P&L, and are able to focus on both the revenue and expense sides of the business, which is great--it gives you a balanced perspective."

Her primary advice to others starting out in the airline industry is, "never have a rigidly defined career path. Be open to new opportunities. Never in my wildest dreams 12 years ago would I have thought this would be the kind of position I would have."

A similar track was followed by Patricia Burr, who joined America West "when we had 40 people and no airplanes," and now, is corporate treasurer. After obtaining her MBA, she was "fortunate enough to be hired by Continental in 1979 into a financial-management-trainee program, in which there were five guys and me." She worked in general accounting for a year and spent a year in revenue accounting, then "was lucky enough to become the first woman hired into a manager's position in the finance department at Continental."

Among her co-workers were Mike Conway and Al Frei, who left in the early 1980s to help found America West. In 1983, "Mike talked a few of us into coming to the desert ... and through all the ups and downs, it has just been the most marvelous experience .... You don't get the chance to do something from the ground floor that often."

Burr, who heads "an all-female treasury department," thinks opportunities for women in management "have grown quite a bit in the last few years. It's not unusual for me to be in meetings now with some of our insurance carriers and attorneys, and it will be all gals--we all sit and kind of grin at each other."

Other women airline executives have climbed to the top from the very bottom. Ruthie McKee was promoted to senior VP-customer service and line maintenance at Northwest in early 1995. She describes her career as "street kid makes good. …

Log in to your account to read this article – and millions more.