In her many speaking engagements, Christina Cassotis often shares the story of how she was once mistaken for a flight attendant by a man who asked her to get him coffee shortly after boarding an international flight.
As CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, Cassotis hears many of the same questions: What’s it like to be a female CEO? What challenges have you faced as a woman in the aviation industry?
Although the number of women in leadership positions is increasing – about 30 currently lead U.S. airports – subtle sexism, unfair labels and criticism, the wage gap, outright sexual harassment and other challenges still persist in many board and conference rooms around the world.
That’s one of the reasons the Airport Authority established a Women’s Development Network for airport employees to cultivate leadership skills, business practices, personal contacts and career opportunities. The Network will hold its first meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 30, with Cassotis as the guest speaker.
“The program was created and is led by employees who brainstorm guest speakers, discussion topics and potential events,” said Kristin Cullen, the Airport Authority’s marketing manager. “We thought Christina would be a good start since she is a female in a traditionally male-dominated field and has been successful in navigating the industry.”
Today, 24 women head Fortune 500 companies, and even fewer have run large airlines. In December, Ann Rigail was named the first woman CEO of Air France. Carolyn McCall was CEO of British low-cost carrier EasyJet for seven years, and Christine Ourmieres-Widener leads Flybe, a European regional airline with fewer than 100 planes.
In the U.S., two regional airlines are led by women: CEO Christine Deister, at Air Wisconsin, which operates United Express flights; and Linda Markham, president of Cape Air.
“I think it’s obscene that there are no women running the major U.S. airlines,” Cassotis said. “The overall aviation industry has a number of women CEOs running airports and important parts of the supply chain. But the industry overall should be more reflective of society in terms of race and gender because there are as many women as men who are interested in and qualified for the roles.”
One goal of the network is to enhance women’s professional growth by providing information that develops pathways to various careers, said Samantha Stedford, senior analyst for Strategic Initiatives at the Airport Authority. Research shows that women often face unique challenges related to motherhood and other stereotypes in their career development and advancement.
“The Airport Authority has a keen interest in supporting employees and creating a diverse, inclusive workplace, and men are certainly welcome to participate,” Stedford said. “This program aims to bring awareness to the unique challenges women face and provide information related to women’s professional development.”
Cassotis said it’s important to ensure that women have access to equal opportunity and the right opportunities to advance in their field.
While she used to struggle with questions related to being a woman in business, Cassotis said she has come to understand more about herself, her role and her ability to inspire others.
“I’m much more aware of what I have taken for granted about being able to walk into this role and prove myself based on my experience and skills,” she said. “That’s not something women were able to easily do 30 or even 20 years ago. “I’m more aware of the long slog it has taken to get to this point, and the fact that there is still more work to do.”
Cassotis will speak to the Women’s Council of Greater Pittsburgh next month and will take part in a panel discussion with other women at Delta Airlines at the Aviation Festival Americas in Miami in May.