Akbar al Baker, chosen as the new head of international airlines' trade group, shocked people by suggesting that an airline CEO's job is too tough for a woman. A day later, he apologised.
Promises by the global airline industry to do more to promote gender equality veered off course on Tuesday 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.
The audible gasp from the crowd as @qatarairways GCEO and @IATA Chairman Akbar Al Baker "jokes" only a man can be a CEO is amazing. Listen for yourself. @Qantas CEO Alan Joyce cutting him off was both good and bad, I suppose. #IATAAGM #iawa @WomenInAviation @WomenOfAviation pic.twitter.com/rrrFND3G5E— Seth Miller (@WandrMe) June 5, 2018
On Wednesday, Al Baker apologised, saying his remarks had been intended as a joke and had been taken out of context.
“Quite frankly I think the press took it out of context. It was just a joke ... I apologise for it,” he told the CAPA-Centre for Aviation airlines conference in Sydney.
Al Baker 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.
Al Baker was anointed chairman of the global industry body during the two-day annual meeting in Sydney.
His comments sparked a debate on social media.
At @IATA AGM, @qatarairways Group CEO Akbar Al Baker responds to question on diversity and female representation in airline industry “Of course @qatarairways has to be led by a man, because it’s a very challenging position” Joke or not, resounding boos from the room #IATAAGM— Haidi Lun 伦海迪 (@HaidiLun) June 5, 2018
Some users pointed out that women were heading bigger companies than an airline.
.@qatarairways head says only a man can do his job as CEO because it’s so “challenging.” Breaking news boss-@GM and @pepsi are much, much larger companies. You might want to look up who’s doing the work of CEO at both those companies. @mtbarra @IndraNooyi pic.twitter.com/4pq0p4LO82— ROOP RAJ (@rooprajfox2) June 5, 2018
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."
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.
IATA currently has just two female CEOs on its 31-member board - Christine Ourmieres-Widener of British budget airline Flybe and Air Europa's Maria Jose Hidalgo Gutierrez, who was added Tuesday.
IATA's chief executive Alexandre de Juniac acknowledged that having more women in senior positions was a "long-standing issue" that required further efforts from airlines and the industry body.
It released figures in March showing just three percent of CEOs in the industry were female, compared with 12 percent in other sectors.
Leading carriers in North America and Europe had the highest representation of women in senior roles at 16 percent and 14 percent respectively, IATA said.
African, Asia-Pacific and South American airlines were at about eight percent, with the Middle East having the worst at four percent, the data showed.