International Women’s Day is a perfect time to celebrate the incredible women in each of our lives. From family, friends, colleagues, and the incredible women who have paved the way for the next generation, I think we can each think of many wonderful women to acknowledge today and throughout Women’s History Month. One woman who comes to mind for me and all Employees at Southwest Airlines is Colleen C. Barrett. I hope you’ll join me in celebrating Colleen’s legacy and the important women in your life.
The following story about Colleen is part of how we’re celebrating our 50th Anniversary and Women’s History Month. In recognition of our 50th Anniversary, we have plans to share stories about several important Southwest moments in multiple ways throughout the year. In fact, this story about Colleen blazing a trail for women in aviation Leadership is an excerpt from a book that will be available later in 2021 to celebrate Southwest’s milestone anniversary! Stay tuned for more information about the book and be on the lookout for other compelling Southwest stories over the coming months.
In Colleen Barrett’s family, cowbells were rung to celebrate great accomplishments, and by that measure, a carillon should have sounded on March 19, 2001. That was the date Southwest announced that she would become the first woman President of Southwest Airlines, or of any major U.S. airline for that matter.
She would go on to receive a host of accolades, including winning the Outstanding Woman in Aviation Award in 2007 and landing repeatedly on a prominent list of the 100 most powerful women in business.
Born poor in rural Vermont, Colleen earned a two-year associate's degree and made her way to Texas, where in 1967 she became Herb Kelleher’s legal secretary when the Southwest Founder was still working as a lawyer in San Antonio. She followed Herb to Southwest, assuming the role of Corporate Secretary in 1978. In 1986, she became Vice President Administration and, in 1990, Executive Vice President Customers. But she was best known as the architect of Southwest’s Culture.
In many ways, Colleen was the perfect complement to Herb. He could provide the determination, competitiveness, and military lingo to rally the troops. She reminded everyone to treat others with respect and to follow the Golden Rule, which her mother had instilled in her when she was growing up. The result was a Culture that could be both fierce and kind at the same time.
Colleen’s Leadership has been an inspiration to others both inside and outside the Company and has reinforced Southwest’s efforts to promote women into Leadership positions.
As of 2019, more than 40 percent of Southwest’s Employees and about 30 percent of Executives were women.
Southwest has taken other steps to promote gender diversity. In 2018, for example, the Company awarded $25,000 in scholarships to women for additional flight training and assistance in obtaining pilots’ licenses. It also awarded scholarships to women for Aviation Maintenance Professional Certification to pursue careers as aviation maintenance professionals.
Colleen retired in 2008 and was given the title President Emeritus. Gary dedicated a special airplane to her—named Heroine of the Heart—which remains a permanent member of the Southwest fleet. There was also an impromptu tribute in the Headquarters lobby that included a somewhat altered version of a famous country song—and of course, a lot of cowbells.
Stay tuned for more information about how we’re celebrating Colleen as a special part of Women’s History Month and the 50th Anniversary this year.