Yes, they can: Women leading European airports

Almost 10% of women are on top management positions among 500 member airports of ACI EUROPE. Although this is not yet the ideal proportion, there are good examples that show that the European airport industry is taking steps to promote the ascendancy of women leaders. Inês Rebelo reports.

The need for more gender diversity in leadership is widely acknowledged in aviation and in any other business in Europe and elsewhere. However, the reality is not yet very favourable to women, who usually do not reach managerial positions as easily as men, despite their skillset. Gender equality, particularly in decision-making roles, requires a social and cultural shift that we should make happen sooner rather than later for the benefit of women, businesses and the entire society.

It is no coincidence that the United Nations (UN) has included gender equality among its Sustainable Development Goals. For the UN, gender equality is “not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world”. Gender should not be a limitation for women to unlock their true talent and potential, and men have a role to play in supporting them and breaking the walls of gender disparity. This is why the UN launched the “He for She” global solidarity movement in 2014. It seeks to mobilise men and boys to promote gender equality and help to build a more balanced society.

Fittingly, this year’s campaign theme of the International Women’s Day (8 March) is #BalanceforBetter. This campaign, which will run all year long, calls for a more gender-balanced world. The message could not be clearer: “balance is not a women’s issue, it’s a business issue. The race is on for the gender-balanced boardroom, a gender-balanced government, gender-balanced media coverage, a gender-balance of employees, more gender-balance in wealth, gender-balanced sports coverage… Gender balance is essential for economies and communities to thrive.”

How can we have a more gender balanced and equitable workplace and world? The answer can be twofold: on the one hand, it is important to challenge existing barriers, including the male-dominated power structure, by removing cultural bias that women are born to care and serve rather than to lead. Recognising female talent and empowering women to advance in their careers is a step to a more balanced democratic society. On the other hand, it is crucial to attract and retain more young women to business areas that have always been seen as a “man’s thing”, such as aviation. Encouraging women to embrace “non-traditional” pathways and give them the same career opportunities will allow them not only to grow and succeed, but also to make those jobs much more competitive.

Accelerating women’s participation & professional growth in air transport

The transport sector is vital for the European economy. According to the European Commission, transport employs 11 million people of which only 22% are women. Across the range of transport modes, aviation is the most gender balanced mode of transport with 40% female workforce as opposed to 14% women in land transport and 20% women in waterborne transport. Yet, there is still some way to go to increase female representation in this sector.

Recognising the need to strengthen gender parity and equal employment opportunities in transport across the EU Member States, the European Commission launched the “Women in Transport – EU Platform for Change” in November 2017. The platform is open to all stakeholders in the transport sector that are committed to taking actions to improve female employment and gender equality. It also serves as a forum to exchange best practice (for more information:

At an international level, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is striving to promote gender equality and the development of women in aviation. Two ICAO key initiatives in this regard have been the launch of the Aviation Scholarship for Professional Women, in conjunction with the International Aviation Women’s Association (IAWA), and the organisation of the first ever Global Aviation Gender Summit in Cape Town last August, in collaboration with UNESCO.

The airport community is also making efforts to improve gender parity and to get more women into executive positions. Since 2014, ACI World has an affiliation agreement with IAWA to work collaboratively on education, training and job opportunities in order to create the future network of airport women leaders. Moreover, in the second quarter of this year, ACI World, together with 4 other key aviation and aerospace organisations, including the International Air Transport Association (IATA), International Aviation Women’s Association (IAWA), Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) and Korn Ferry – Civil Aviation Practice, is due to release a global study on women in leadership – “Soaring Through the Glass Ceiling”. This study aims to understand the root causes of the underrepresentation of women at leadership level in aviation and to identify successful practices and stories in increasing the ratio of women in senior roles.

Women flying high at airports

At last year’s ACI EUROPE Annual Congress in Brussels, Dr Michael Kerkloh, President of ACI EUROPE and President & CEO of Munich Airport, said: “Looking at airports, our own business transformation has certainly benefited from the more prominent contribution of women. At Munich Airport we currently have a share of women in the supervisory board and executive board of more than 30 percent. We definitely see the need to systematically increase the share of women in executive roles within the next years – and we do have a series of measures & projects to do that.”

Munich Airport is not alone. Today over 40 airports in Europe have women in the top position – including Madrid, Barcelona, Venice, Catania, Stuttgart, Göteborg and Quimper-Cornouaille airports, as well as Hermes, the Cyprus airport group. Given ACI EUROPE’s airport membership as a whole (500 airports), this is not yet sufficient but it is already encouraging to see how the airport industry is actively becoming more inclusive.

In parallel to the lead interview with Monica Scarpa, CEO of the SAVE Airport Group, we decided to catch up with some of the other female CEOs of European airports, to find out how they see their job and the role of women in airport leadership, as well as what key lessons they wanted to share as a way of inspiring more women to follow in their footsteps.

Elena Mayoral, CEO of Adolfo Suárez-Madrid Barajas Airport


“I graduated in Aeronautical Engineering and specialised in airports at the Polytechnic University of Madrid. Therefore, my career was naturally leading to the airport world and, at Aena, I took up different roles in the Planning Department. Later on, I became Director of Valladolid, Ibiza and – since 2013 – Madrid airports.

In my career, my skills have always been valued the same way as anybody else’s. Apart from technical expertise, I think it is essential to work in team and support those who you work with. If your team is made of good professionals (luckily, this has always been my case), everything is much simpler. It is all about knowing what they need and knowing how you can help them.”

“I am very lucky to work at the first airport company in the world where gender equality is an imperative. I think women can bring a different way of analysing situations, as it happens when teams are made of people with different professional backgrounds or nationalities. For me, diversity is richness.

As woman leader, it is an ongoing challenge to anticipate our needs and adapt our airport infrastructures to future demand. Motivation and high commitment are intrinsic to my role. It is also crucial that I work with great professionals to provide the best service possible. Another big challenge of my role is to be open to the development of digital solutions that will make operations more efficient and sustainable.

From my experience, gender equality in male-dominated industries will only be possible if there is gender parity in the family setting from the very start. This education should be reinforced at school, since early childhood, which is the moment when we gain the necessary self-confidence to take future goals.

Current women leaders should continue to show that competence is not a gender distinctive factor. It is essential to promote gender equality through education. Only by doing so will we move towards a society that does not need to talk about equality or differences in female and male leadership, but that it will focus on the need to work in diverse and complementary teams.”

Sonia Corrochano, CEO of Barcelona-El Prat Airport


“I have always been passionate about aviation, that’s why I decided to study aeronautical engineering. At the beginning of my career, I worked for the construction sector, mainly on airport expansion projects. However, some years later, I felt I was more interested in management and I changed to operations. In the first years of my career, I was lucky to work with very highly talented colleagues who helped me to develop my skills. I was also fortunate to work at Aena, which recognises skills regardless of gender. This made it possible for me to take up my current role.”

“I think it is enriching that teams are made of men and women, because there is a combination of different perspectives and ways of finding solutions that greatly contribute to the development of the projects. As women are more disposed to find solutions that conciliate work with family/leisure time, this is a relevant factor of women leadership.

We will certainly see more women leaders if their merit is taken into account for their promotion, gender aside. This should also come with new principles at the workplace, like management by objectives, because women give a lot of importance to flexibility.”

Eva Valenzuela, CEO of Menorca Airport


“I began my career in aviation working for airlines where I had technical roles in the Operations Department and aircraft maintenance. Afterwards, I joined the airport world, that is, Aena. I had the opportunity to work in airport management and in operations at Palma de Mallorca Airport prior to my current role.

In addition to my technical skills and qualification, I think that what led me to achieve my current position were other abilities, such as commitment, persistence, readiness to change and people-focused approach. I truly believe in an inclusive vision of management in order to bring out the best of people, by accepting their differences and singularities.”

“I think female talent is a key business element and it is part of the future of the airport industry. For this reason, at Aena we promote gender diversity at all levels. For instance, women represent more than 50% of the Steering Committee of Menorca Airport.

Women leaders can bring great flexibility and ability to adapt to any kind of situation, achieving the highest performance at difficult moments. They can also show a great deal of persistence and perseverance to reach the desired goals and to even exceed them. Alongside with lifelong learning and hard work, we are able to innovate continuously. Women leadership focused on people allows for better cooperation and team work.

There is no doubt about the benefits of gender equality to companies, such as higher level of productivity, better results, retaining talent, innovation. The glass ceilings can be broken daily through a lot of work, exactly the same way as great changes come with small actions. Women should equip themselves with a solid academic background, work hard, be recognised by their own merits, believe in themselves and be genuine, without imitating anyone. They should always do what they think is right and stick to it, take the necessary risks and form an excellent team.

When the airport industry will be gender balanced, we will be able to face the complexity of future challenges and offer new solutions. We are on the right path, but we still have some work to do to achieve it.”

Begoña Llarena, CEO of Vitoria Airport


“I began my airport career in 1993 in the Legal Department. As a lawyer, I provided legal advice in all airport areas, which inevitably enabled me to know more about the fascinating airport world, at all levels. It also allowed me to get a broad vision of the airport system. This led to my nomination as CEO of San Sebastian Airport in March 1997. I performed this role until March 2001, when I became CEO of Bilbao Airport before being nominated CEO of Vitoria Airport in 2010. I worked at three different Spanish airports when it comes to their activity: San Sebastian represented a full experience in coordinating the airspace; Bilbao is an airport focused on passenger traffic and Vitoria is particularly dedicated to cargo and it occupies the 4th place in Aena’s airports ranking.”

“The challenges I faced as woman were not different from those of my male colleagues. I actually remember how my colleagues welcomed me so warmly. My nomination as CEO was something so natural that it was not subject to any particular comment about the fact that I had become the first woman to manage an airport at Aena. In any case, as time goes by, this fact has gained more relevance. With the perspective that time gives, people realise that it represented a turning point in women airport leadership.

Women’s participation in the airport industry has risen over the past years. Their participation is paramount when it comes to skills and abilities. It also contributes to improving and increasing talent performance. Recognising and highlighting female professionalism is key, because there are still not a lot of women leaders in the airport industry.

Aena started breaking paradigms 21 years ago, by showing clear signs of gender equality in airport leadership. It has incorporated it into its organisational culture, which has led to a rise in the number of women leaders at airports. Aena’s business culture has adapted itself to the gradual integration of women in leading roles. This allows me to create expectations about the future career advancement of my colleagues into executive positions.

I consider that leadership is not a matter of gender rather than people. A significant step forward in this regard is the fact that key qualities related to the so-called female leadership should be taken into account, no matter if one is a man or a woman, such as people-focused management and empathy without losing sight of a goal-oriented approach.”

Liisa Sallinen, Airport Manager at Oulu Airport


“I was developing or leading customer services during my previous career before airports. My first position with aviation and airports was a service manager position at Helsinki Airport after graduation. I worked in this role at Helsinki Airport from 1997 to 2005.”

“At Oulu Airport I have two department managers reporting to me, one is a man and the other is a woman. Traditionally, in maintenance department all employees are men – I hope to see some women entering maintenance in the future as well. At the moment, we have one woman in maintenance as a trainee, so good development there. In customer services, we have 50-50 between genders – a good balance!

In my view, women enrich and bring another perspective into the industry, but a lot of this is related to the person and background rather than gender. An airport is an entity comprised of small and large matters that must be functional, so that the airport develops and the personnel feels well.

We should promote more women into management position at airports by continuously bringing up successes and positive experiences – actively communicating more than we have previously.”

Mari Nurminen, Airport Manager at Tampere-Pirkkala Airport


“One of my hobbies was aviation when I was a teenager. My first experience working at an airport was at Rovaniemi, where I worked on weekends at the cafeteria to finance my pilot licence. Alongside my studies at Tampere University, I worked at Air Navigation Service Centre, where I gradually worked as a chief of staff after graduation. I continued to the head office to work as a planning director and onwards to manage Tampere-Pirkkala Airport in 2014. I also took the regional director responsibilities of Central Finland area as of the 1st of January 2016. So, I have a dual role managing an airport and region of airports. My career has developed through education and work experience.”

“In Tampere and in the whole of Finland, women leaders are not an exception, so I do not remember ever having had problems because of being a woman. To give you a few examples, Tampere and Pirkkala had women mayors and Tampere University is led by a woman. Tampere-Pirkkala Airport is a combined civilian-military airport. This is interesting as it has been new for some partners that the airport has a woman in charge. However, I can say that there have been no negative experiences. It has been very rewarding to develop Tampere-Pirkkala Airport to meet different kinds of customer needs.

Inevitably, the number of women in aviation and in the airport industry will balance the male majority. All personnel regardless of gender needs to have the possibility to get promoted so that the talented people will stay. Women need examples of working their way up. In management positions, women often bring deeper understanding of human behaviour and work in a flat hierarchy. The more women in charge, the easier it is for others to rise in management. Example is the most powerful inspiration and motivates any career progress. When I am recruiting, the selection is based on talent and personal qualifications, not on gender.”

Gender equality will feature in the new Sustainability Strategy that ACI EUROPE is currently preparing to launch at its 29th Annual Congress, General Assembly & Exhibition on 26 June in Cyprus, hosted by Hermes Airports.

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