Qatar Airways CE Akbar al-Baker. Picture: REUTERS
Qatar Airways CE Akbar al-Baker. Picture: REUTERS

Sydney — Set your sights elsewhere, women. Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker says only a man could rise to the challenges of his job.

Moments after becoming chairman of the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) board of governors, one of the world’s biggest boys’ clubs, Al Baker did little to suggest things will change.

At a press conference in Sydney, where IATA held its annual meeting, he was asked what could be done about the woeful representation of women in Middle East aviation. "Of course it has to be led by a man, because it is a very challenging position." There were loud groans of disapproval from many reporters in the room.

The comments contrast with efforts by some rivals to push up female representation at the upper echelons. Al Baker told the reporter this is the case at Qatar Airways. Qantas Airways’s senior management is 40% female, including the heads of the international and frequent-flier loyalty businesses, CEO Alan Joyce said. SkyTeam appointed Delta executive Kristin Colvile as CEO of the airline alliance earlier this month.

Not only is diversity a competitive advantage, Joyce said, "It’s the right business thing to do and it’s the right moral thing to do."

A day earlier, IATA members from airlines across the world had listened to a panel discussing ways to address gender imbalances in the industry. When the IATA board posed for a group photo last week, there was just one woman among 26 airline chiefs — Christine Ourmières-Widener, CEO of UK regional carrier Flybe Group.

Al Baker clarified his position in an interview with Bloomberg TV’s Haidi Lun after his press conference. "I was only referring to one individual," he said. "I was not referring to the staff in general."

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

Asked whether he’d welcome a female executive as CEO, Al Baker said: "It will be my pleasure to have a female CEO candidate I could then develop to become CEO after me."