At the recent Aviation Festival in London, to support diversity in both the transport and travel and sectors, Women in Transport members were invited to attend a Women in Aviation Mixer.
Not only was this an excellent opportunity to meet people in a range of roles across the travel and transport industries, but we also got to hear inspiring speeches from Bonny Simi, President of Jetblue Ventures and Chris Browne, Chief Operating Officer of easyJet.
Bonny Simi has a fascinating CV. Her many achievements include being an airline pilot, a TV reporter and an Olympian. She also has an awe-inspiring track record in human resources, customer service and engineering and has no less than three degrees from Stanford University.
Not bad, for a girl who was raised by a disabled, single mother who relied on welfare. Bonni puts her successes down to goal-setting. She implored us to 'write down our dreams'. That's what Bonni did and she's pretty much achieved them all!
As a child, Bonni often visited the local airport with her mother and, as a fourteen year old, developed a burning ambition to learn to fly. It was one of the first dreams she wrote down. She kept that dream alive and some years later signed up for an introductory flying course, eventually gaining her pilot's licence.
She went on to give flying lessons while also working as a TV reporter. She recalls how one Saturday, she was about to start work at the flying school when she was called in to the office to cover a story. This was a tempting offer – paying many times more than the flying lessons – but she turned it down, not wanting to disappoint her students. That was the moment she realised flying was her passion. 'Follow your heart', she says and, 'if you love what you do, you will never have to work a single day in your life'.
Bonni also suggests that, if you want to succeed in your career, you should take on risks and challenges as you never know what you can do unless you do it.
Although Bonni still pursues her first love of flying, as an active airline captain with JetBlue, her main role, as the President of Jet Blue ventures, is helping entrepreneurs achieve their dreams. There are 12 members in her team of which 7 are women and they look at many women's startups. Unsurprisingly her advice to them is 'you need dreams – not just goals – and you must write them down'.
easyJet's Chris Browne had an equally inspiring story to tell.
One of seven children, she grew up in Strabane, in Northern Ireland, during The Troubles. Strabane apparently was famous for being blown up more times than any other town in the western world since World War 2. Something Chris says taught her to value what's important in life.
With female representation of only 24 per cent, one can appreciate that getting to the top in the aviation sector involved overcoming many prejudices and hurdles. However, Chris was challenged even earlier, as she says that neither the nuns that taught her, nor her father, could believe that she had actually passed her 11 plus. But their attitude made her determined to succeed and to get a good education. To succeed generally, and in a male dominated industry in particular, she says 'You have to be bold and unafraid'. And she adds, 'You must never lose your sense of humour'.
She recalled the early days of her career when women often weren't even shortlisted. When she worked at Iberia, her boss told her that women should be 'pregnant, barefoot and stay in the kitchen'. He added that, as she seemed 'relatively intelligent', he would take her on. That intelligence led to her getting his job three years later and becoming the youngest and first female General Manager of the organisation.
We weren't sure whether to laugh or cry when Chris told us, when she became Managing Director of First Choice, one of the captains commented 'Oh my word, they're sending a woman to run the airline. What will they think of next?'.
But Chris was undaunted, saying 'it is better to try than never knowing if you would have succeeded.' And succeed she has, holding many senior leadership positions, including Chief Operating Officer of Tui Travel, Managing Director of Thomson Airways , where she launched the new luxury Dreamliner aircraft, and Managing Director of First Choice Airways. And in 2013 her contribution to the aviation industry was recognised with an OBE.
Chris is clearly passionate about increasing the representation of women in the airline business and says, 'I want easyJet to reflect the people that fly with us'.
As the overall gender pay gap at easyJet is running at over 50 per cent, you might think that the prospects for women in the corporation are not good. However, their gender pay gap is nothing to do with pay inequality. It is that, as in all airlines, the highest paid are generally the pilots who make up the largest proportion of the employees (around 94 per cent) and a very small percentage of these is female.
Three years ago, to encourage more women pilots, easyJet launched the Amy Johnson Initiative. They set a target that 20 per cent of new pilots should be female by 2020, up from 6 per cent in 2015. It is clearly having a positive effect as the current intake of new female pilots is 13 per cent.
Also, to change the perception that flying a plane is a job for the boys and to inspire more girls to become pilots, easyJet have just released a video re-imagining a scene from the film Catch Me If You Can, which features a girl as a pilot while the cabin crew are played by boys.
To read more about the Amy Johnson initiative click here
To see the easyJet video click here