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EasyJet's CEO on why aviation was late to the gender equality journey

Edmund Heaphy
Finance and news reporter
Low-cost airline EasyJet CEO Johan Lundgren. Photo: Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images

EasyJet CEO Johan Lundgren was awarded first place in this year’s 2019 HERoes Advocates list. The list, released by diversity and inclusion network INvolve and supported by Yahoo Finance, celebrates 40 senior leaders who are advocates for women in business and dedicated to creating a more diverse and inclusive business environment for women. View the full 2019 HERoes Advocates list here.

Within just two months of joining EasyJet (EZJ.L) as CEO in December 2017, Johan Lundgren asked the board of the FTSE 100 company to give him a pay cut.

Though the reduction may seem modest — his annual salary went from £740,000 to £706,000 — the move brought his pay in line with that of his female predecessor, Carolyn McCall, who left the airline in 2017 and went on to become the first female CEO of UK broadcaster ITV.

Because the vast majority of pilots are male, airlines face a particular hurdle when it comes to reducing the gender pay gap. EasyJet is no different.

"There were things I wanted to do in this area — but the salary reduction gave me the opportunity to demonstrate my personal commitment to equal pay overall,” Lundgren told Yahoo Finance UK.

“We don't have, and we didn't have, unequal pay for men and women. But what we had, and what we still do have, is a gender imbalance, particularly among pilots, because they are more highly paid,” he said.

“It was a way of showing with actions, rather than words, that we want to be progressive in this area.”

‘The discussion is equally as important as the target’

EasyJet had already been forward-thinking in this domain. In 2015, it launched the Amy Johnson Flying Initiative with the aim of tackling stereotypes and increasing the number of female pilots.

Named after the pioneering female pilot who set a record on a solo flight from London to Darwin, the initiative sought to increase the proportion of new female pilots from 6% to 12%.

But Lundgren decided to be even more ambitious, and said that 20% of the airline’s pilot recruits should be female by 2020.

“We are well on our way to hitting that target,” Lundgren said.

But the inputs into the processes — how you go about setting targets — are often far more important, he noted.

Three annual company-wide reviews of pay, policies and procedures, the most recent of which occurred in July, have found there was no gender bias, Lundgren said.

“What we got from it, though, was a lot of value in the discussions,” Lundgren said. “I think the discussion within the company is equally as important as what you're putting on a piece of paper. It keeps it alive.”

And while he said that targets were an important way to measure and demonstrate progress, they “should not be the overall religion” of a company.

EasyJet pilots Sue Barrett and Kate McWilliams in the cockpit of an EasyJet plane at Gatwick Airport. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images

‘Aviation has been quite late on the gender equality journey’

“You can look at data until the cows come home” that shows that gender equality makes business sense, Lundgren said. But he noted that, while the fields of law and medicine had made significant progress, the aviation industry, and the occupation of being a pilot more specifically, have been “quite late on this journey”.

“The stereotype is that being a pilot is a very technical job that is not suited for people unless you are really, really interested in certain things,” he said.

“You need to be able to demonstrate to girls at a young age that this, actually, is a brilliant career for you.”

So far this year, the airline has completed over 100 visits to schools and universities to explain why exactly this is the case.

“One of the stereotypes that exists is that, when you become a mother and you have a family, being a pilot wouldn't suit you because of the working hours,” he said.

“Well, it's the same working hours as the people in the cabin crew, who are predominately female! They fly the same schedules!”

‘The debate among ten men, or exclusively ten women, is never as good’

Inclusion is the next key focus for EasyJet, Lundgren said. Half of the senior executives who directly report to him are female — not because he was aiming for a specific number, he said, but because he wanted a mixed environment.

“I always thrive, and think that the results are better with mixed environments,” Lundgren said. “The debate among ten men, or exclusively ten women, is never as good or as productive, I think, as when you mix it up.”

“It also comes back to looking at the inclusion of people with different experiences,” he said, noting that he wanted it to become the “absolute core” of the airline.

EasyJet CEO Johan Lundgren. Photo: EasyJet

Lundgren said his focus on diversity and inclusion isn’t just about business, but about fundamentally doing the right thing.

He explains it through the perspective of his own twins: “It's become very apparent to me that when you're blessed and privileged to have children, to have a boy and a girl at exactly the same age, you see how our society and culture works, how companies advertise and address them, and what the expectations are of them."

Yes, it might end up being the case that they fulfil traditional gender roles, Lundgren said. “But not always — and not nearly as always as one thinks,” he added.

“It's important, and everyone will get this when they have their own families, that everyone gets the same opportunities.”

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Yahoo Finance is supporting diversity and inclusion network INvolve’s executive role model lists across EMpower, HERoes, and OUTstanding. Nominations for the 2019 OUTstanding role models lists are open.