Flying ahead: career progression for women in the airline industry


Estelle Hollingsworth took up her role as Vice President of Talent and Development at Virgin Atlantic/Virgin Holidays in January. It’s a role with a lot of room for innovation and recent initiatives include a Be Yourself Strategy, with a big focus on gender and ethnic diversity.

The initiative’s three key focus areas are:

– creating an inclusive environment where everyone’s individuality is celebrated;

– building of a diverse workforce, with an immediate focus on increasing gender and BAME diversity in all recruitment shortlists, including getting more women into technical and leadership roles;

– and increasing capability and awareness within Virgin Atlantic/Virgin Holidays to ensure leaders have a greater level of awareness of the diversity of their teams so they can lead in an inclusive and supportive way and are aware of unconscious bias.

As a senior female leader, Estelle is a good role model for the company.

Career path

Estelle has three children, aged six, 12 and 14 and took 10 months maternity leave with her first two children and 13 months with her last. She went part time – three days a week – when she had her first child and worked in HR at industrial gas and chemical multinational Air Products. While she was on maternity leave with her second child she was offered a promotion to training and development manager for Northern Europe at four days a week which she took. Two years later she was promoted again to HR Operations Director for Northern and Central Europe, a full-time role based in Brussels. The family moved to Belgium.

“The nature of that role was very different to what I had done before. It was a massive role with significant responsibility,” she says.

Estelle’s husband was doing a global role at the time and was able to work remotely and to be flexible. “It was a big challenge with both of us working,” says Estelle.

The family moved back to the UK when Estelle had her third child. On maternity leave she was asked if she wanted to head up a new talent management function in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Her husband had taken time out of the workplace after their third child was born and set up his own company 18 months later. “I was the main breadwinner so it made sense and he was able to be fairly flexible,” says Estelle.

She moved to BAE Systems as HR director in 2014 and then earlier this year to Virgin Atlantic/Virgin Holidays as Vice President of Talent and Development.

She says all her employers have been flexible which has enabled her to be a mum and a productive professional. She has never missed an important school event. In terms of childcare, the family have had French au pairs over the last few years. “They are like big siblings to the children,” she says, adding that she is very much a hands-on mum when she gets home.

A flexible employer

Estelle describes Virgin Atlantic/Virgin Holidays as a very flexible employer. Her manager is a working mum of four children and is very understanding. “At Virgin, it’s not where I work but my contribution to the organisation that matters,” she says.

In other jobs she has managed remote teams so, although she has faced significant commutes in the past, she was able to work remotely a lot of the time. Now she works from home when she needs to, but her team is based mainly in one location in Crawley so there is more face to face contact. However, the Crawley office is just 15 minutes from Estelle’s home, which means her sense of well being has increased.

Her role involves talent management in the broadest sense. She says Virgin Atlantic/Virgin Holidays has a holistic approach to developing its people. That includes internal development of employees. For instance, Estelle is looking to use Virgin Atlantic/Virgin Holidays’ partnership with Delta Air Lines to increase talent development and provide more opportunities for employees to progress.

“It opens up new career paths for people and allows them to build their acumen and to learn quickly,” she says. In addition to managers, she is focusing on working with the customer team to open up career opportunities for airline crew through secondments in recruitment and training delivery.

“It helps them see how they are connected to other functions so they understand the wider business and feel part of something much bigger,” she says.

Other training and development programmes include Flying Start, the company’s new onboarding programme; Flying Essentials for core learning and development; and Flying High for those with leadership ambitions. The aim is to develop and connect people, with learning and development being interpreted in a broad way to include community work.

Virgin Atlantic also puts a focus on developing the whole person through its Flourish well being programme which every leader, including flight service managers, are put through. “The focus is on how they look after themselves and their teams,” says Estelle.

To develop future female leaders, Virgin Atlantic/Virgin Holidays has just launched its Springboard programme of four one-day modules for early career women. These cover issues including confidence building and sponsorship. The first cohort is halfway through the programme and Estelle says the feedback has been very good.

Estelle herself is very positive about working at Virgin Atlantic/Virgin Holidays. “The culture here is outstanding,” she says. “It is very inclusive and welcoming. We put people at the heart of everything we do. I feel like I have come home and this welcoming, inclusive culture is what I experience every day. I could not wish for a more exciting and energising work environment.”

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