Akbar Al Baker, the chief executive of Qatar Airways, stirred up the gender debate on Tuesday when he said only a man could do his job.
His comment highlights a gender diversity problem in the aviation sector and comes at an awkward time for the industry as Mr Baker has just become chairman of the International Air Transport Association’s board of governors.
In response to a question about the underrepresentation of women in Middle Eastern airlines, Mr Baker said of his job as head of Qatar Airways: “Of course it has to be led by a man, because it is a very challenging position.”
He later said that he had not meant women in general, rather that there was no particular woman ready to succeed him at Qatar. He added that the airline had more than a third of female staff and women up to senior vice-president level.
Mr Baker was speaking in Sydney at IATA’s annual meeting where director-general Alexandre de Juniac had previously referred to gender in his annual address.
Mr de Juniac had acknowledged: “As you can see from this room, we have work to do on gender balance.” He said the organisation now required gender-diverse lists of candidates for jobs.
IATA’s board, however, has only two women out of 31 members: Christine Ourmières-Widener, chief executive of UK regional airline Flybe Group, and María José Hidalgo Gutiérrez, chief executive of Spain’s Air Europa.
Global figures for female airline pilots are poor. In the US in 2016, only 6.3 per cent of 96,000 commercial pilots were women, according to data from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Brian Strutton, general secretary of the British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa), stressed gender should not be an issue in aviation when recruiting a pilot. “Balpa believes that when it comes to being a pilot, or running an airline, it is the ability to do the job that matters, full stop.”
Airlines, however, have reported poor gender pay gaps as part of the UK government’s transparency initiative. EasyJet’s median hourly rate for women was 46 per cent lower than for men, and Ryanair’s was 72 per cent lower. British Airways’ was 10 per cent. The median pay gap across the UK was 9.7 per cent.
Ryanair had only 3 per cent of women in its top quartile by pay.
Willie Walsh, chief executive of IAG, which owns British Airways, said recently: “I don’t see it as an industry issue, I see it as a societal issue.”
He said it was “an issue of supply” and that it would be easier if more girls did subjects such as science, technology, engineering and maths at school.
Mr Walsh added that he did not expect a quick resolution: “It’s taken 40 years for Aer Lingus to get from zero to 10 per cent [female pilots], and that’s in an environment where they were actively recruiting women, ahead of a lot of other airlines.”
Qatar came 117th out of 122 countries in business school Insead’s 2016 Gender Progress index, with a labour participation rate of 51 per cent for women and 96 per cent for men.
But Qatar and its neighbours are trying to catch up with other regions by promoting women to positions of power in politics and business.