Airbus CEO answers lack of senior women, ethnic minorities

Lean Into Aviation (3)HAMBURG — At the question and answer session that closed the Airbus Innovation Days here in Germany’s aviation capital, Runway Girl Network asked the European airframer’s President and CEO Fabrice Brégier why zero women had presented at any sessions of the two-and-a-half day event, why so few ethnic minorities are represented in its senior management, and what Airbus’ solution was to its obvious diversity problem.

Brégier’s response on gender diversity was admirable in its ambitions. “We have not enough women. This is clear,” Brégier said bluntly. “We need to attract more women. Not just as head of communication, or HR, or Legal, but in production, in engineering, in programme management, in commercial.”

Highlighting that Airbus has several women in senior non-engineering roles, he expressed aspirations to do more, yet spoke openly of the challenges faced in the pipeline: just 15% of relevant specialist graduates are women, with Airbus’ hiring target at 25% women, and the company is currently at 25%.

“We are deliberately trying to make additional efforts,” Brégier said. “This is only one example of what we are trying to do.”

Yet the proof of Airbus’ good intentions will be in hiring — from within or from without — senior women to represent the company to media on strategic and technical subjects. Runway Girl Network has profiled women from Airbus with technical specialties, and indeed within the Hamburg aviation cluster alone there are several very senior women

Moreover, the sharp intake of breath from those present even on asking the question, and the number of women Airbus employees who approached RGN journalists privately after we asked it, demonstrate that there is substantial appetite for increased gender diversity.

It is impossible to consider Brégier’s response to the ethnicity part of RGN’s question in the same broadly positive way, however. “I think we do a lot, and by the way, if you go to Mobile, you will see many Black people,” he said. “So I invite you to see that we have a real diversity everywhere. My assistant is Black, but this is not why I selected him; it is because he is very good.”

Brégier’s response drew gasps in the room at several points in this section, and we present it here in full, unedited. The question on diversity of gender follows the discussion of ethnicity.

In Brégier’s defence, Airbus is indeed a multinational corporation and so has substantial diversity among the larger (and indeed smaller) European nations.

“Honestly, we are the most integrated company in the world,” Brégier said. “We have four main nationalities, as you know, in Europe, but we have, I think, at Airbus one hundred nationalities. So we have Chinese, we have Indians, but not only locally — we try to have them on board in Toulouse or Hamburg. So you will see, I am sure, in the next ten years, people who will take up top-level management positions which will no longer be French, German, British, Spanish, or even American, for John Leahy.”

But a majority of senior staff — unrepresentative of either Airbus’ airline customers or their passengers — and every single member of the airframer’s executive committee are men of white Western European ethnicity.

Airbus' Executive Committee lacks women and ethnic minorities. Image: Airbus

Airbus’ Executive Committee lacks women and ethnic minorities. Image: Airbus

With the exception of head of marketing and strategy Dr Kiran Rao, who Brégier described as “not black, but he is not totally white”, and the regional leads, there is a notable lack of ethnic diversity in Airbus’ other senior staff. There is a similar lack of ethnic diversity among its board of directors, of whom three of twelve directors are women, all three of whom were first elected since 2015. If indeed Airbus’ staff are as diverse at specialist and managerial level as Brégier contents (and RGN has no reason to doubt him on this point), there are still questions to be answered about how the company is attracting, managing and nurturing talent.

300x300v4 Panasonic 300While there is something to be said for having senior executives from multiple developed Western countries, ethnic minorities from these countries are underrepresented, as of course are women.

Moreover, while there may be an requirement for tertiary technical training in specialist and specialist management positions, the majority of these senior roles themselves require an overview and synthesis skillset rather than an in-depth specialism, so “pipeline” issues would seem less vital. It should be noted that, in contrast, the Executive Council of the Boeing Company is markedly more diverse in both gender and ethnicity than Airbus’.

Overall, Brégier’s agile and considered answer to the gender equality question stood in fairly stark contrast to his answer on diversity of ethnicity. It is somewhat difficult to believe that this question has not been asked — and a solution to Airbus’ ethnic diversity problem at least considered and begun to be put into place — before 2016.

John Walton was a guest of Airbus for its Innovation Days media event.

8 Comments

  1. Ingrid Bennett

    Well done asking the questions. To get more diversity, you need to showcase that you are actively pursuing diversity. Having role models within the company would help immensely. Like with many companies, it looks like Airbus are trying to improve and the more questions like this that get asked, the more likely it is to change. It is a long slow process but I am hopeful companies like Airbus can make the changes necessary to improve diversity in the workforce and in senior management. Having come from an engineering background and worked in companies where I have been the only female, it is really tough to stick it out. I have always found places that have a balance between genders in the workforce to be nicer to work in than those that are dominated by either gender. In my experience, the same goes for ethnic diversity. The broader the workforce, the more pleasant a place is to work. Thank you for bringing attention to diversity in the workplace 🙂

    • Mary Kirby

      Thank you, Ingrid. I’m in full agreement with you. There’s an opportunity for improvement across industry, and I too am hopeful of positive change at Airbus.

  2. Marty

    Well I just had a look at those profiles – and out of the 19 ‘contributors’ that you’ve listed, there are only two people of clearly non-white ethnic origin. Moreover, their articles account for a tiny proportion your site’s real “Pax-Ex” & IFE-related industry content. For the latter, it basically boils down to yourself and a handful of ‘anchor’ writers – unmistakable names who everyone associates as being the RGN ‘branded’ expert journalists – who are ethnically white. 😉

    • Mary Kirby

      Marty, we have multiple experts on the site. If you take time to read their profiles, you’ll see that some of our Contributing Editors have made names for themselves under their own unique brands. Others are building their brands as I type. I’m grateful for their contributions to Runway Girl Network, and indeed would value receiving more content from them – as they well know – but I understand why they feed their own titles first (titles which we also promote). But I do agree that there is always room for improvement, which is among the reasons why we recently launched a mentorship program to improve both our gender and ethnic diversity. As it so happens, the author of this piece, John Walton, is playing a key role in that effort.

  3. Aviator

    I do not think this was RGN’s finest moment. Not so much the raising of this important question but the way it has been handled. Airbus is not the only multinational corporation trying to be more inclusive and diverse. Unlike Boeing Airbus draws its staff from across a number of countries, all of which have a different ethnic make up and different connotations on what constitutes diversity, for better or worse. Here in the US we think Latinos are a different group whereas Europeans would not dream of considering Spanish employees as “different”. Brégier may have been clumsy in the way he addressed the question but at least he answered it in an honest way. I would be more concerned about a polished PR answer which shies away from the question. Diversity is and remains a challenge for all companies. However it is not a challenge for companies alone. The education system and the legal framework needs to be designed to encourage all to be be able to rise to the top. Isolating the issue at solely company level is naive.

    What is completely missing are solutions being offered by the author. It is one thing to criticise but quite another to have viable solutions. Is he suggesting quotas, positive discrimination, or some other favorable treatment? If it is quotas then he’ll be pleased to know that French law provides for balanced representation of men and women on boards with steps for new appointments required in 2014 (20%) and 2017 (40%) respectively. The UK on the other hand only has a voluntary, “business led”, aim to increase representation of women on FTSE 100 boards to at least 25% by 2015.

    Has he ever recruited management teams? I have and I can assure you that even with the best intentions true diversity is a long term goal, not one achieved with just a glib twitter/blog expose. The defensive way the author and his colleague have handled the ensuing criticism of their online “performance” does not do justice to this important issue. Let’s have a real debate without all this finger pointing please.

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