Qatar Air CEO Akbar Al Baker Says His ‘Very Challenging Position’ Could Only Be Performed By A Man

The executive was responding to a question about gender imbalance in the aviation industry.

Akbar Al Baker Qatar Airways potential sexism comment
Kamran Jebreili / AP Images

The executive was responding to a question about gender imbalance in the aviation industry.

The chief executive officer of Qatar Airways is encountering turbulence after comments he made at the International Air Transport Association annual meeting in Sydney, Australia.

At a press conference after he was named the group’s board chairman, Akbar Al Baker apparently shocked those in attendance with his response to a question about alleged gender inequality in the aviation industry, and in the Middle East in particular.

About Qatar Airways, which is said to be one of the world’s biggest air carriers, CEO Al Baker seemed to deny any systemic gender inequality. He added the following remark, which has made international headlines and predictably took off on social media with its implications of sexism.

“Well, of course, it has to be led by a man, because it is a very challenging position.”

According to the Bloomberg news agency, this resulted in “loud groans of disapproval from many reporters in the room,” which appears to be validated by the audio clip embedded below.

Just 10 minutes before, Akbar Al Baker promised to avoid any controversial statements because of the seriousness of his IATA chairmanship role.

The Qatari businessman later told Bloomberg that “I was only referring to one individual. I was not referring to the staff in general.” The company subsequently noted that 44 percent of its staff is female, including female pilots and executives.

In an apparent attempt to quell the controversy, Akbar Al Baker subsequently issued a statement, CNN reported.

“While I am known in the media for some lightheartedness at press conferences, it is crucial that I emphasize the facts as I did today and the importance of women representatives in the airline industry. Qatar Airways firmly believes in gender equality in the workplace and our airline has been a pioneer in our region in this regard, as the first airline to employ female pilots, as one of the first to train and employ female engineers, and with females represented through to senior vice president positions within the airline. It would be my pleasure if I could help develop a female candidate to be the next CEO of Qatar Airways.”

According to Time, of the 30 members of the IATA board of governors, only two are female.

The IATA itself has made a commitment to encourage greater gender diversity among its industry members. A panel discussion to address gender equality was part of the proceedings on Monday at the Sydney conference.

Beginning its operations in January 1994, Qatar Airways is a state-owned airline headquartered in the capital city of Doha and flies out of its hub at Hamad International Airport to 150 international destinations. It has about 24,000 employees.

As a follow-up to his prior statements, Al Akbar tweeted a “heartfelt apology” today to anyone who might have been offended. The CEO also noted that his company supports gender equality in the workplace and recalled that Qatar Airways was the first carrier in the region to employee female pilots and engineers.

Separately, Qatar’s neighbor Saudi Arabia has announced that women will officially be allowed to drive effective on June 24 as the country began issuing driver’s licenses yesterday.