Everyday sexism, Aviation edition

This story is produced in partnership with PaxEx.Aero - The Business of Passenger Experience

The closing press conference of the IATA Annual General Meeting (AGM) is typically a perfunctory affair. A few dozen journalists gather to hear canned remarks, a few banal questions are asked and then the group disperses to the corners of the earth from whence they came. This year was different. And in a most spectacular way.

The tone of the AGM was different, owing to relatively consistent pressure from the assembled delegates and media regarding gender equality. With only two of the 31 members of the IATA Board of Governors a women (only one in the photo the group published) there is clearly much work to be done. The topic scored a dedicated panel discussion and was raised from the audience during the CEO panel as well.

With six men on stage that was a rather challenged conversation. Host Richard Quest, never shy about calling attention to issues, responded to the question amusingly and appropriately:

Right, so six men in suits are going to discuss diversity. What is wrong with this picture?

Air Canada CEO Calin Rovinescu tried to answer that question. Instead he fumbled his way through, suggesting that women don’t want to be leaders and that they need to be pushed out of their comfort zone was particularly unfortunate.

What we’ve done is we’ve taken women leaders and put them outside their comfort zones. It used to be that if you were a woman leader in an airline you could aspire to be head of corporate communications, head of legal, head of HR. But not necessarily head of flight operations, maintenance and those kinds of traditionally non-female leadership roles. One of the areas where we’ve had success at many levels is in taking someone out of her comfort zone, putting her in that position and ensuring that does not become the stumbling block.

Quest countered that, pointing out that the CEOs on stage were a significant part of the longstanding bias that contributes to the problems, “The last 5-10 years when you’re in the C-Level is in some senses the result of what happened 15 years previously, the policies that you put in place for junior staff.”

A small amount of discussion ensued but no firm plans or commitments were voiced. It was business as usual in many ways.

From bad to worse

None of that is good, but what happened at the closing press conference was something special. Qatar Airways Group Chief Executive His Excellency Akbar Al Baker pulled a proverbial “hold my beer” when addressing the gathered crowd in his first official action as Chairman of the IATA Board of Governors. He opened the session promising to not say anything controversial in the coming year; that elicited laughs from the crowd. Less than ten minutes into the press conference, however, that plan fell apart in a hurry.

When asked about the gender equality issue Al Baker suggested that it was not a problem at his airline. Confronted with the point that there is not a woman leading the company he made an incredible mistake.

Of course it has to be led by a man. It is a very challenging position.

The shock in the room was clear. It is not entirely clear it was a joke. No one thought it was funny. Qantas CEO Alan Joyce cut Al Baker off and offered a much better answer. Al Baker followed up with better details, highlighting the many roles that women serve in at Qatar Airways, including a Senior VP position. The carrier arguably leads on this issue in the GCC region. But that doesn’t really matter because the damage is done.

The incident was bad for everyone involved. But, even worse than the comment being made, it is almost certain that it will be dismissed as a bad “joke” and everyone will simply move on. Which is to say that the industry remains far too accepting of such behavior. The science behind such is pretty clear. Alas, it seems that the aviation industry remains unwilling to address this very real problem. That IATA is party to this through its endorsement of Mr. Al Baker’s role leading the organization is most unfortunate.

Header image via IATA

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2 Responses

  1. Festus
    Festus at |

    “Right, so six men in suits are going to discuss diversity. What is wrong with this picture?”

    It must be cool to be irony-proof! In an article in which you purport to be against sexism, you fully endorse the disqualification of individuals to opine on the topic based on…wait for it…. their sex!

    1. blogadmin
      blogadmin at |

      If you’re suggesting that a panel of only men can have a coherent discussion on the topic that appropriately considers all angles I’ll go ahead and disabuse you of that notion. Just not gonna happen right.