Qatar Airways faces backlash after CEO dismisses female leadership

The carrier’s outspoken chief, Akbar al Baker, asserted that a woman couldn’t do his job. Critics say there isn’t room for gender discrimination in the global airline industry.

Never one to avoid controversy, Akbar al Baker put his foot in his mouth—ankle deep—when asked how to address gender inequality in air travel.

The chief executive for Qatar Airways has a history of making unfortunate comments; he had quipped minutes earlier that one of his new roles as chairman of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) was to “be less controversial.”

Reuters reported:

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.

It would seem that al Baker knew he had misspoken, because he went on to highlight ways the Persian Gulf carrier has promoted women in the workplace.

Reuters continued:

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.

The Guardian reported:

Later, in an interview with Bloomberg TV, he said more than a third of Qatar Airways staff were female, including pilots and senior vice-presidents. He added there was no gender inequality at the Gulf carrier, which has a close business partnership with British Airways. Qatar is also the largest single shareholder in BA’s parent company, IAG.

Asked whether he would welcome a female executive as chief executive, Al Baker, who has run Qatar Airways since 1997, said: “It will be my pleasure to have a female CEO candidate I could then develop to become CEO after me.”

Al Baker tried to diminish the scope of his comments.


Bloomberg reported:

“I was only referring to one individual,” he said. “I was not referring to the staff in general.”

Qatar Airways staff are more than 33 percent female, he said. The carrier has female pilots and female senior vice presidents, he said. There’s no gender inequality in Qatar Airways, he said.

The Guardian offered some context, as well:

Qatar Airways has long had an abysmal reputation for its treatment of its predominantly female cabin crew, at one time firing them for being pregnant.

The airline is believed to have eased some restrictions on the movement of its crew during non-working hours, which have included curfews, living in monitored accommodation and contractual bans on marriage without express company permission.

Journalists, meanwhile, noted al Baker’s history of questionable remarks.

The BBC reported:

It’s not the first time that the Qatar Airways boss has sparked controversy.

Last year, Mr Baker was forced to apologised “unreservedly” for his unflattering description of US flight attendants as “grandmothers”. In contrast, he had said the average age of Qatar Airways cabin crews was 26 in comments criticised as both sexist and ageist.

He made his most recent jarring remarks at the annual meeting of the IATA, which had made gender inclusion a major issue at this year’s summit.

The BBC continued:

Alan Joyce, the gay chief executive of Qantas Airways who campaigned for marriage equality in Australia, had sat next to Mr Baker at a session on the topic.

Mr Joyce said that having a diverse workforce could help drive profits.

“If you get the best talent, the best people, the best jobs you’re going to perform better,” he added.

Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways-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%,” he said.

Despite other positive and progressive statements from airline industry insiders, al Baker’s comments drew the most attention from reporters and social media users.

What do you think of Al Baker’s comments—and his attempts to mitigate the damage?

(Image via by Sergey Korovkin)

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