An airline boss made a sexist comment. Then these female founders got outraged

You have to be a man to lead Qatar Airways, according to a comment made by the CEO. So we talked to some female entrepreneurs who have an idea of where he can shove that opinion

An airline boss made a sexist comment. Then these female founders got outraged

From the #MeToo movement calling out powerful men’s sleazy behaviours to Carrie Gracie resigning from the BBC over gender pay gap issues, this last year has seen a wave of women standing up for their rights. The times they are a-changing. However, it seems as if not everyone has received the memo.

Women might be leading countries and spearheading the growth of global companies but managing an airline? Let’s leave that to a man. That’s the message Akbar Al Baker, chief executive of Qatar Airways, recently sent at a press conference in Sydney, moments after becoming chair of the International Air Transport Association (IATA). 

When asked what could be done to tackle the lack of women in Middle Eastern aviation, Al Baker replied this was not the case at Qatar Airways as it has 40% female staff but he added: “Of course, it has to be led by a man because it is a very challenging position.” The idea that a pair of X chromosomes would stand in the way of breaking the glass ceiling in the sky was met by loud groans from the journalists in the room, according to The Guardian.

Even though Al Baker has since issued an apology, brushing off his comments as a joke, one has to wonder if it wasn’t a sign of a problematic culture. After all, it’s not the first time the airline has seemed to act discriminatory against women. In the past, contracts for female employees banned marriage without company permission and air hostesses could even be sacked if they got pregnant. But after being cornered by the international transport workers’ federation, the contracts were amended.

His comment also highlighted the gender inequality in the industry in general. At the same meeting where he was named chair if IATA, Christine Ourmières-Widener, CEO of Flybe Group, was the only woman among the board’s 26 airline chiefs.

Still, there are seemingly steps being taken to corrode the cemented barriers against women. For instance, Qantas Airways’ senior management is more than 35% female, according to a LinkedIn post by Alan Joyce, CEO of Qantas Airlines. Moreover, SkyTeam appointed Kristin Colvile as its chief executive earlier this month.

But the aviation industry is hardly alone in having problems with gender equality. After all only 7% of the chief executives at Britain’s 100 biggest companies were women in November last year. And earlier in June, CEOs of FTSE350 companies came up with patronising excuses for excluding women in the boardroom. For instance, one top dog at one of these firms said: “There aren’t that many women with the right credentials and depth of experience to sit on the board – the issues covered are extremely complex.”

This and Al Baker’s comments have understandably sparked a wave of criticism among female British business leaders. “In this world, what gives anyone license to condescend to women without impunity?” asked Jenny Stanley, founder and managing director of Appetite Creative Solutions and FemmeNiche, a network to bring professional women together. “We have to call out this behaviour for what it is: an awful, dangerous inciteful comment that undermines us.”

She added: “I hope the resulting outrage is not forgotten. We have seen, for centuries now, what the empowerment of women does for the good of the world and what devastation oppression causes.”

Stanley warned other business leaders not to follow in the Qatar chief’s footsteps. “This isn’t an example any CEO should be setting to their staff and industry peers, let alone a new generation of entrepreneurs who need to be setting exemplary business leadership,” she said.

Geeta Sidhu-Robb, the founder and CEO of Nosh Detox, the detox company,  added that these issues could also be blamed on the company’s structure. “The issues stem from infrastructure and other organisational processes in businesses,” she said. “This is also something which cannot be addressed overnight. It’s only through dialogue and deliberation that we will begin to see a change.”

Sidhu-Robb believed that, at least in Britain, companies have reason to start taking gender equality seriously.  “The UK government’s initiative to direct companies to publish their gender pay gap statistics is a good start. It brought about transparency with regards to how organisations function and, now that it is on the public sphere, they are pressured to act on it.”

While unearthing gender-based pay gaps between employees is crucial to spark change, it is equally critical that companies listen and act on it before it is too late.”

Varsha Saraogi
Varsha Saraogi

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