12.11.10

Who's Missing in First Class?

NBC Universal executive Lauren Zalaznick's obsession with counting and cataloging led her to make a startling observation about who sits in the first-class cabin.

For almost 15 years, I've catalogued various things. Obsessively, some would say. Specifically, I spent three years, every day, sorting various articles in The New York Times by topic, correlated to the gender (and race, where possible) of the journalist. Three years of obituaries, Op-Ed columns, and the covers of the Sunday Magazine section. I guess I wanted to see how the ultimate arbiter of news and information filtered the voices chosen to represent the culture at large.

On the obits page, only 16 percent of the deaths reported on were women. The most common profession of the female dead, even filtered for women under 45 to take into account the changing social and professional status since 1960, was acting (which included "silent film star" and "burlesque dancer"). Writers/journalists was the second most common. And a combination of "socialite,” “philanthropist,” and wife-of-a-rich-or-famous man was third.

In the year of op-eds I tracked, there were only a few female-penned ones that didn't mention the word "crying," and I don't think even one of the humor pieces for the entire year was written by a woman. That's not funny.

A few years later, I was five months pregnant with my third child when the World Trade Center attacks occurred, very close to our home. From the day he was born every day through his first birthday, I took a picture of him, my two other kids, my husband, and myself. The baby changed exponentially. The kids changed a lot. The grown-ups changed more than I thought we would. My hair never looked the same twice.

Life's fleeting nature, as well as the monotony of it, is apparent in every frame.

Like an amateur sociologist or anthropologist, it's interesting to me to see how groups break down. How do things change—if they change—incrementally, over time?

There are a plethora of groups that track and publish this kind of information, which I read avidly when I come across it. For instance, a July, 2010 study by U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the lone Hispanic senator, unveiled the results of a survey on women and minority representation among the senior management of Fortune 500 companies. It was comprehensive, with input from 219 corporations on the Fortune 500 list and 71 out of the Fortune 100 list. The data yielded Caucasian men and women representing a total of 85.5 percent; White women are an 18 percent subset; combined African-American men and women are just under 6 percent; Asians at close to 3 percent; Hispanics similar, at 2.5 percent.

I have worked in various parts of the media industry since I graduated from college. I got my first corporate job in my 30s. Level-by-level, I climbed the ladder and as I did, the "perks" grew. Now, in my 40s, I fly first class for business travel, probably an average of once a month. Warm nuts, free drinks; the cabin gets smaller and the seats get bigger.

There is neither subtlety nor any science to my survey.

Since July 2007, I've taken approximately 60 round trips from New York City to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami, London, Atlanta, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Detroit, and many other cities. On these trips, I recorded the race/ethnicity and gender of the inhabitants of the first-class compartments in which I sat.

More informal and less statistically sound than the Menendez study, to be sure, I found the aggregate cabin population was an average of almost 92 percent Caucasian. Of these, almost 30 percent were white women. I'd say approximately half of these women were the non-working spouses of the working male half of the couple, along for the ride, so to speak. So call it 15 percent working white women.

Across these tens of thousands of miles and approximately 600 travelers, less than 4 percent  were African American, while just under 5 percent were Asian. In these categories as well, men outnumbered women significantly. All others, including Hispanics, totaled just about 2 percent. Again I will qualify all of this with the fact that I used only visible diversity as a guide. There is neither subtlety nor any science to my survey.

Each year, a well-known market research company, MRI, surveys tens of thousands of consumers about dozens of things, including what they eat, what car they drive, and what they do for a living, at what level.

Their 2010 survey drew a picture very similar to the senator's. They estimate 88 percent of C-suite executives are white, with African Americans just under 7 percent; Asians represent approximately 2 percent; Hispanics a bit higher, but in the single digits as well.

So, I found that my not-so-scientific accounting of business flyers yielded not-so-different results from the people who actually get paid to look into this stuff. Comforting, or alarming, I'm not sure.

I started to wonder about the origins of first class. Growing up, and through my 20s, I flew coach, like most people. I must have walked past the first-class seats, but I never noticed them. In my research, I came across an advertisement for American Airlines from 1963, the year I was born. It's in the form of a short essay titled "In Defense of The Ivory Tower: Thoughts on First Class travel."

The copy reads: "The extra room, the privacy, the service, the atmosphere in general all make flights easier for men with work on their minds. We don't doubt that it adds up to a kind of ivory tower. It's supposed to."

I think that aim of the mission for first-class travel remains true—currently lionized by the cultural appropriation of the Mad Men-era—to both reflect the makeup of, and be a safe haven for, the denizens of the highest level of corporate America. I'm one of them, glad to be secure in my place, an active contributor in the working world. And, I appreciate the reciprocation of warm nuts and having a decent five hours sleep when I take a red-eye.

But, I'd like to see the racial and gender balance in the C-suite and its transportation mirror, the first-class cabin, move faster than the certain but incremental progress I've seen in my own working life.

Surely, the Ivory Tower should allow for a bit more color in the almost 50 years hence.

Lauren Zalaznick, President of NBC Universal Women & Lifestyle Entertainment Networks, oversees Bravo Media, Oxygen Media, and iVillage. She also founded and oversees the NBCU portfolio's pro-social initiatives—Green is Universal and the newly established Healthy At NBCU, NBC Universal's health and wellness program. She was named President, NBC Universal Women and Lifestyle Entertainment Networks in May 2008, when she added iVillage to her portfolio and announced the launch of Women@NBCU.