If IATA was hoping that its new chairman, Qatar Airways' Akbar Al Baker, would reveal a formerly hidden talent for diplomacy in his new role, then it has been left sadly disappointed.

Shortly after promising to steer clear of controversy, the outspoken Qatar chief - displaying all the delicacy of an elephant navigating a minefield - promptly delivered a verdict on gender politics that will have had his fellow CEOs wincing.

Running Qatar Airways, he said, could only be done by a man, "because it is a very challenging position".

Although Al Baker (pictured below, centre) swiftly attempted to backtrack, and offered "heartfelt apologies" for any offence caused, his comments were as unsurprising as they are crass.



But setting aside the understandable outrage for a moment, the diplomatic grenade casually hurled by the Qatar Airways boss may at least concentrate the industry's minds on the topic of gender equality.

Look at any meeting of IATA chiefs and it is a sea of (mostly white) middle-aged men: stale, pale and male, as someone once observed of a certain breed of football manager.

Just two of the association's board are female - María José Hidalgo Gutiérrez of Air Europa and Flybe's Christine Ourmières-Widener - and women are woefully represented across airline C-suites globally.

But is the aviation industry institutionally sexist? Al Baker's comments certainly suggest that dinosaur attitudes are part of the problem.

There are, however, a host of other issues that must also be tackled - not least among them unconscious bias, and stereotyping in general, be it crude or subtle.

IATA is at least now making the right noises about righting the gender imbalance, but it remains to be seen whether the organisation can force change at member level. If not, it is simply mouthing empty platitudes.

Real change can take time - as IAG chief Willie Walsh noted, it took Aer Lingus 40 years, starting in 1977, before even 10% of its pilots were female - but there is a business logic to accelerating the pace of progress, as well as a moral one. After all, for as long as the current inequality persists, airlines are missing out on a huge reservoir of untapped talent.

While Al Baker's sentiments were deplorable, the industry should use the anger generated to enact swift change.

Source: Flight International