The only lady in the business class lounge

I hate early morning flights. I consider any activity before 6am to be a unique form of torture which I am sure is covered under some sub-clause of the Geneva Conventions. When compounded with the obstacle course of checked bags and security screenings, I am very grumpy indeed. This may be why I always head directly to the coffee bar when I reach the business class lounge. A few weeks ago on a Sydney — Perth run, I encountered what I’ve now found is a fairly prevalent issue. As I reached the front of the coffee queue the barista asked without looking up, “And what can I get for you this morning, Sir?” After as slight pause, I politely informed him that Madam takes a Flat White. On my way back to my seat, clutching my coffee, I understood the context of the barista’s mistake. I was the only woman in the lounge.

This revelation triggered a month long counting game. Every time I flew, I counted the ratio of women to men in the lounge. Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, I conducted my informal experiment on two or three flights a week for four weeks. The percentages were always roughly the same; less than twenty percent of the lounge population was women. The ratios also seemed to be even worse during peak business travel times, like early Monday mornings. At this ungodly hour, I was usually one of a handful of women. The only instance of approximate gender parity was when I happened to be on the same flight as a women’s professional basketball team.

So why does this matter? It’s a fact that even in our virtual age doing business requires travel. Mid-level management and executive roles in almost every commercial sector demand travel. While technologies such as video conferencing and web-based meetings allow us to work with people from all over the world, face to face meetings are still the ones that seal the deal. For women to be in the C-Suite and on boards they need to be on planes first.

While discussing this with a friend, he very helpfully explained that of course most women can’t travel for business because most have children at home. As I loath to agree with a sexist remark he is, for all intents and purposes, correct. Gendered social expectations about the relative burden of child rearing are perhaps the largest barrier to women traveling for business. However, this isn’t just a home front issue of individual couples deciding who takes care of little Timmy and when. Corporate decision-making plays a role as well. Women are often overlooked for roles and opportunities that involve a high frequency of travel. It is assumed that if a woman has kids or is even married, she would not be open to a role that involves being away from home.

Uneven gendered expectations cut both ways and punish both sexes. Many devoted dads have travel expectations thrust on them without the same consultation or flexibility that would be extended to a woman. It is simply assumed that a man with kids will be available to travel for extended periods of time.

This double standard leaves both genders with more limited options to shape their careers and personal lives. If we are serious about addressing the gender imbalance in the workplace, one step is readjusting the predominate corporate approach to business travel. I would love to see more women grumpily queuing for coffee in the business class lounge. I also want to see more men having the flexibility to say no to extensive travel for the sake of their family life. This paradigm shift along with a host of other required changes should lead to more women taking on the management level roles and gaining the experience necessary to secure C-Suite or Board level positions. In the meantime, I’ll be in the lounge, grumpily sipping my Flat White and counting towards equality.

(Content was first posted on LinkedIn)

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