Cathay Pacific CEO Rupert Hogg vows to close gender gap as flight director’s departure means no women on Hong Kong airline’s top deck
Efforts by city’s flagship carrier come as industry bosses look at how to remove imbalance
There have long been fewer female leaders than male in Hong Kong’s aviation sector, but come this summer the disparity will be made starker when Cathay Pacific Airways’ sole female leader, flight operations director Anna Thompson, leaves the city’s flagship carrier.
Thompson’s departure to the property unit of Cathay Pacific’s biggest shareholder, Swire Pacific, will leave no women in leadership roles at any of the city’s four passenger airlines.
Asked about the discrepancy, Cathay Pacific CEO Rupert Hogg acknowledged: “We are an all-male line-up and we hope that doesn’t continue forever.”
He pledged to address the gender imbalance, adding: “Inclusion is really important, particularly from minority groups to feel they have a place in Cathay Pacific.”
Thompson could not be reached for comment. The other three airlines are Cathay Pacific’s subsidiary, Cathay Dragon, as well as Hong Kong Airlines and Hong Kong Express. The latter two declined to comment.
More than 60 per cent of employees at Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon are women.
The sector’s gender imbalance and how businesses can make progress on it featured in a discussion on Monday at the International Air Transport Association (IATA) summit, an annual global gathering of airlines and industry executives, held this year in Sydney.
Aviation consultant Mylene Scholnick said the “scales tip heavily” towards male candidates across the board when middle-to-senior management roles in the industry are being filled.
Scholnick cited statistics to illustrate the scale of the challenge, noting women make up less than 5 per cent of airline pilots and airline CEOs. And while half of the intake into the aviation industry last year was female, they were mainly hired for support functions or roles such as flight attendants.
“I believe mentorship, training on unconscious biases, and business resource groups, are all key to seeing more women leaders,” the consultant said.
At the summit, an all-male panel of airline executives, including Hogg and bosses from Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Emirates and KLM, agreed more action was needed to even out the gender disparity.
KLM’s Pieter Elbers said the sector needed to look more deeply into what was driving the imbalance and what should be done in various parts of women’s careers to spark change.
“That is not necessarily a discussion with the five of us [at the summit] ... that is a discussion with the women involved,” he said. “What’s needed and how can we help to make the progress?”
But at the event’s closing press conference on Tuesday, the incoming IATA chairman, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker, voiced a different view, saying nothing needed to be done to promote women to his airline’s senior ranks.
Asked about the top job, Al Baker said: “Of course it has to be led by a man because it is a very challenging position.”
His statement elicited groans and boos.
On IATA’s 31-member governing board, represented by airlines, only one woman holds a seat.
And in the past year, two female CEOs have left the airline industry for top jobs elsewhere. Former EasyJet CEO Carolyn McCall switched to the media sector, while ex-Jetstar boss Jayne Hrdlicka left for the agriculture sector. Thai Airways announced its female acting president, Usanee Sangsingkeo, would be replaced permanently by an outsider, a man with no aviation experience.
On Monday the SkyTeam airline alliance announced Kristin Colville as its new CEO, a month after the board of United Continental airlines agreed to have its first female chair, with JetBlue promoting a woman to its president in charge of day-to-day operations.
In the region, China’s Dr Fang Liu chairs the International Civil Aviation Organisation, a UN agency managing the global rules in aviation.
Flourishing budget carrier Vietjet, whose model is as much to sell seats as well as the appeal of its female cabin crew, is led by CEO Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, and commercial chief Nguyen Thi Thuy Binh. At AirAsia, Aireen Omar has risen to the rank of deputy group CEO.
Scholnick, who co-founded Hong Kong business jet operator Metrojet, was optimistic about the imbalance being corrected eventually.
“Gender disparity in aviation ... will persist over the next several years,” she said. “However, I believe that there’s opportunity now for young women in aviation to gain experience and reach senior levels of leading organisations.”
In Cathay Pacific’s case, the female general managers who are just one level below the airline’s 11 directors appear poised to move up to serve as its next batch of leaders.
Fiona Nott, CEO of the non-profit Women’s Foundation in Hong Kong, said women were generally under-represented in the city across leadership positions in business, with just 29 per cent of management positions held by women.
“Surprisingly for a global hub, women’s position in Hong Kong lags behind other developed markets,” Nott said. She called for targets and objectives to be rolled out for gender diversity over and above those set for business outcomes.
“Numerous studies show that greater gender diversity leads to better business outcomes. Having more women in leadership is good for business and good for Hong Kong. We all benefit when our businesses reflect the society in which they operate.”
Danny Lee was reporting from Sydney, Australia