A year after Qatar boss’ gaffe, airlines still pay ‘lip service’ to diversity: Executives

SEOUL (Reuters): A year after Qatar Airways boss’ remark that a woman could not do his job drew scathing criticism, airline executives called out the industry for paying only “lip service” to diversity and not pushing to get more women out of cabins and into boardrooms.

While Akbar al-Baker had apologized for his remarks made at last year’s International Air Transport Association (IATA) meeting in Sydney, saying they were intended as a joke and taken out of context, the controversy highlighted the lack of women in senior aviation roles.

His airline is now sponsoring three diversity and inclusion awards with $25,000 prizes, each to be presented on Monday at this year’s IATA meeting in Seoul.

But Air New Zealand Ltd CEO Christopher Luxon said more concrete action was needed, such as refusing to serve on all-male panel talks and creating women’s support networks.

“Compared to other sectors and other business sectors that I’m part of around the world and in New Zealand, aviation and IATA’s record is abysmal in terms of gender diversity and inclusion,” he told Reuters on the sidelines of the meeting.

“We are just paying lip service to it at the moment and window dressing it and we are not even doing a very good job of that if we are really honest with ourselves.”

The top of the airline industry remains male dominated, with only two women CEOs on the 27-member IATA Board of Governors currently chaired by al-Baker.

One of the two, FlyBe CEO Christine Ourmières-Widener, has said she will resign from her FlyBe role on July 15 after her airline is taken over by Connect Airways.

“It is clear that this industry has a good record in terms of employing women, broadly speaking on average. But at the senior position level, it is not the case,” IATA Director General Alexandre de Juniac said.

IATA is working with industry partners to share best practices and help form a strategy on gender diversity against which to measure progress, he added.

Kirstin Colvile, the CEO of the SkyTeam airlines alliance, said IATA could do more at the annual meeting, such as hosting a networking breakfast to promote women in aviation.

“Female networks and support groups are incredibly important to give you the confidence,” she said.

“In order to move the needle – and you see that it hasn’t moved much – I think we are going to have to take some steps, whether that is just targets or concerted efforts, we just have to drive more women into leadership position.”


The industry does a good job at attracting women into some roles, such as flight attendants and travel agents, but far less so in pilot and engineering positions.

In India, which has the highest ratio of female pilots in the world at around 12% despite a patriarchal society, SpiceJet has set a target to increase its proportion to 33% in the next few years, Chairman Ajay Singh said in Seoul.

“It is not very nice to have a 33% target to be honest. Ideally it should be anybody who is capable,” he said.

“But I think for periods of time positive discrimination helps. I think in countries like ours these women become terrific role models for young women.”

SpiceJet’s female pilot ratio is now in line with India’s average, or more than double the global average of under 5%, according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots.

Air New Zealand too has set targets and is looking to raise the number of women in top general manager jobs to 40% by 2020, from 16% in 2013, Luxon said.

“We got there last year,” he said. “Now we are at 43% and we are on our way to 50% next year, maybe at the end of this year.”

He said Air New Zealand had achieved that by a ruthless focus on identifying women with leadership potential, ensuring salaries were equal for the same roles, creating internal groups to give women more of a voice and ensuring recruiters considered female candidates for top executive roles.

“I feel very comfortable we will get to a place where the CEOs who come after me, it will be a 50/50 chance they will be women as well,” Luxon said.