“To promote the necessary human capital that meets airlines’ current demands, you think about liberal arts majors,” American Airlines EVP Elise Eberwein says. And that means recruiting more women and members of under-represented groups to leadership roles.

“Why are so many women running airports? Because it doesn’t pay!” quipped Pittsburgh International Airport CEO Christina Cassotis during a panel session related to workplace diversity and inclusion in the airline industry at the Aviation Festival Americas last month.

Airlines are steadily doing better when it comes to promoting women and people of color to leadership roles, contended Cassotis’ fellow panelists Sandy Gordon,

SVP of Airport Operations/Domestic Stations at Delta Air Lines, and Elise Eberwein, EVP for People and Communications at American Airlines.

“The diversity and inclusion conversation has become more prominent at Delta,” Gordon told the audience, noting that the airline created a dedicated a board to addressing the issue years ago. As a result, Great Place to Work, a business development organization that oversees corporate human  resources programs, and Fortune magazine have called out Delta as one of the 2018 Best Workplaces for Diversity, something the airline has now earned for three consecutive years.

Aside from lobbying by groups speaking for under-represented constituencies, the embrace of inclusion isn’t just about generating positive public relations and the occasional nod from an interest group, American’s Eberwein told Kambr Media following the panel discussion.

Primarily, the shift to digital has required new skill sets that demand hiring from a wider segment of the population and developing a broader leadership track.

Still, the seal of approval from watchdog groups does validate efforts airlines are taking. For example, Eberwein, whose aviation career has taken her from flight attendant to the executive suite, noted that American has initiated similar programs, noting that the airline has received a “perfect score” from the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group, for 16 consecutive years.

Kambr Media: How do you feel the airline industry is doing in terms of being more inclusive and in promoting women to leadership positions?

Elise Eberwein: These issues are in the forefront of society's concerns. I'm encouraged across the board when I consider the current state of diversity, inclusion, and equity in aviation. And it’s not just about women, but it’s also about creating more opportunity for people of color and promoting ethnic diversity.

Those actions are driving some of the improvements you see in aviation. One of the things I mentioned on the panel has to do with moving away from the traditional STEM-path [Science, Technology, Engineering, Math] climb to the c-suite. That entails broadening our perspectives.

How do you see airlines acting on moving from a STEM-focus to a more expansive one when it comes to hiring?

Airlines really are technology companies to some degree. To promote the necessary human capital that meets airlines’ current demands, you need to think about liberal arts majors. Those skills absolutely lend themselves to careers in aviation. I don't know that we've done that great of a job marketing those options to young women.

Aviation Fest Miami "Women In Aviation" panel: Korn Ferry's Michael Bell, American's Elise Eberwein, Delta's Sandy Gordon, Pittsburg Int'l's Christina Cassotis, and Denver Int'l's Gisela Shanahan

Why do you think that is?

I find, when you say “aviation” to people, they think “I fly a plane” or “I turn a wrench” or “I'm an engineer.” Younger people don't think about back office support, the regulatory environment, reputation management and social media, or even traditional marketing/advertising.

There's a whole body of work where those skills come to bear on an airline’s operations. With a liberal arts degree, you can come in and make a name for yourself and contribute to the business.

Is it fair to say that you took an atypical career path to your post as an EVP at American Airlines?

I started as a flight attendant for TWA. But I was also a mass communications major. I was working as a flight attendant to put myself through undergrad. But that degree, and a concentration on writing, pushed me into leadership and training supervisory roles. From there I went into corporate communications, ultimately getting my MBA.

Eventually, I was asked if I wanted to take on customer relations. And I was asked to try different pieces of that role. For me, education certainly is a key, but it doesn't have to be one track. It doesn't have to be an engineering degree, or mathematics degree, or even a finance degree. It can be something completely different. Of course, you have to have experience, or find your way through those other disciplines, as well. But, you know, certainly it's a more inclusive environment now to consider something other than the traditional path.

Do you think it’s more likely or less likely that someone could emulate your career path and arrive at a similar position?

I think it's more likely. Certainly, the flight attendant role has been traditionally female. But that’s changed. Upwards of 30 percent of our workforce on the flight attendant side are males. And female aviators another untapped resource that’s seeing growth. You're flying an airplane – a $40-, $50, $60 million asset. You can come in and be a chief pilot, you can be a check airman, you can run the Flight Ops department, you can go over to the integrated ops center. You can look at running maintenance planning or integrated ops. A lot of people just don't know what's available to them, and they need that exposure.

Are there any particular initiatives that American is doing to increase the exposure to those various roles to women?

It's really just the start, but about two years ago, we got ourselves comfortable with offering expanded paid maternity leave for all mothers across the company – not just for management or support staff. That’s 130,000 people.

In the past, we would say as an airline, “Well, access to these kinds of benefits depends on your contract.” We'd say that to 90 percent of our work force. Because they're part of a union. In this case, we said, “We're going to take it out of the traditional negotiation arena, and just make it good policy.” We did that and I think people were pleasantly surprised and excited about that. It's the right thing to do.

It's a hindrance or it can be a barrier for women to make sacrifices for family planning. And if we can remove some of those barriers, we will start to see more women in leadership roles.