Born in Bangalore, India, the only child of British expatriate parents (her Scottish father ran the Far East division of a US textile multinational; her Irish mother worked for the British embassy in India), she was educated in India and Singapore until her teens, then at a Roman Catholic girls' boarding school in Derbyshire. She studied for a BA degree in history and politics at the University of Kent, Canterbury, where she met her husband Peter (the couple have three children and live in Berkhamsted).
On graduation she began training as a teacher, completing a year at Holland Park School. She then gained a Master’s degree in politics from the University of London, and on graduation joined construction group Costain. Offered a job on Kevin Kelly's Business magazine, she then applied to be a research planner at The Guardian, where she started in 1986.
Moving to advertising sales, she was mentored by Caroline Marland. As she rose through the Guardian Media Group behind Marland, Management Today magazine called her "One of the toughest operators to have risen through The Guardian Media Group's ranks." After rising to become CEO of Guardian Newspapers Ltd (now Guardian News & Media Ltd), she became CEO of GMG. During her tenure she sold the Manchester and regionally-based business to Trinity Mirror, and a 49.9% stake in Trader Media Group to Apax Partners, in a deal that valued the business at £1.35bn.
McCall was non-executive director of Lloyds TSB (2008–2009), New Look (1999–2005, a position to which she was reappointed in 2010); and Tesco (2005–2008), a position from which she had to resign after Tesco sued The Guardian for libel. She was chair of the Business in the Community project Opportunity Now, and has also acted as President of Women in Advertising and Communications London.
On 24 March 2010, it was announced that McCall has been appointed the next Chief Executive of easyJet. She is said to prefer a "pragmatic approach to Human Resources rather than politically correct niceties".
In February 2013 she was assessed as one of the 100 most powerful women in the United Kingdom by Woman's Hour on BBC Radio 4. She is currently one of only three female CEOs of a FTSE 100 Index company.
In June 2014, Carolyn was awarded a Doctor of Science Honoris Causa by Cranfield University in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the aerospace industry and her distinguished achievements in international business 
- Andrew Davidson (26 October 2007). "Carolyn McCall". Management Today. Retrieved 2010-12-24.
- #35. Carolyn McCall, 'MediaGuardian 100 2009', The Guardian, 13 July 2009
- Jason Deans, 'GMG chief resigns from Tesco board', The Guardian, 10 April 2008
- Strategy - Guardian of the people - 01/11/2005
- BBC Radio 4, Woman's Hour Power list