Too difficult for women? How Qatar Airways CEO remarks stirred controversy

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Promises by the global airline industry to do more to promote gender equality veered off course when one of its top executives suggested his CEO role was too difficult for a woman.

The issue of gender imbalance in aviation was a hot topic among over 200 airlines represented at the annual meeting of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in Sydney, with the predominantly male gathering agreeing more had to be done.

Asked about the issue among Middle East airlines in particular, and why his job as head of his country’s flag carrier couldn’t be done by a woman, outspoken Qatar Airways Chief Executive, Akbar al Baker, gave a typically provocative answer.

“Of course it has to be led by a man because it is a very challenging position,” he said, drawing gasps from those present. It was not clear whether he was serious or trying to make a joke.

The comments came minutes after Al Baker - who has a reputation for hitting out at rivals and suppliers over poor performance - had joked that one of his roles as the new chairman of IATA was to be less controversial.

He later said Qatar Airways was the first carrier in the region to have female pilots and the company had women in senior roles. “So we actually encourage women. We see that they have huge potential in doing senior management positions,” he said.

Alan Joyce, the gay CEO of Qantas Airways who campaigned for marriage equality in Australia, said ensuring a diverse workforce in general could help to drive profits. “If you get the best talent, the best people, the best jobs you’re going to perform better,” he said, sitting alongside Al Baker at a press briefing.

“I think one of the reasons Qantas turned it around so dramatically is that we’ve embraced diversity.” Gloria Guevara Manzo, the first female president of the World Travel and Tourism Council, said investors needed to start pushing companies to do more.

“When you have diversity, your company’s results are better,” she told Reuters earlier on the sidelines of the Sydney airline talks. “It’s not just for the sake of it.”

Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd will have an all-male top management team when Director of Flight Operations Anna Thompson leaves for another role in parent company Swire Group soon, to be replaced by a male pilot.

Cathay CEO Rupert Hogg said there were no immediate vacancies on the top team but there were women managers a level below and diversity was valued at the airline, which has staff from 75 nationalities and is a supporter of the Gay Games 2022 in Hong Kong.

“I really feel strongly we need to be inclusive in the broadest possible way,” he said. “We need to do more around women and what makes work easy or hard and balancing out lives and all of that stuff. We are working on that at the moment.”

Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways and Aer Lingus owner IAG, said the industry needed to attract more women and that progress had been slow. “Aer Lingus recruited its first female pilot in 1977... It’s taken 40 years to get to 10 percent,” he said at the CAPA-Centre for Aviation summit also taking place in Sydney.

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