Stop paying 'lip service' to diversity and take real action, airline executives say

Diversity discussion comes a year after Qatar Airways CEO’s remark that 'a woman can't do my job' put issue in spotlight

Dalia Yashar, one of the first Saudi students who registered to become a commercial pilot, stands in front of the registration centre, CAE Oxford ATC, where Saudi women can pursue their carrier as a commercial pilots, at King Fahd International Airport in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2018. Picture taken July 15, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
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Airline executives called on the industry to stop paying “lip service” to the need for diversity in boardrooms and instead take decisive action to enable women to rise the ranks to senior positions.

The executives expressed their concerns during the International Air Transport Association’s annual meeting in Seoul where the group, which represents some 290 carriers, presented for the first time awards for diversity and inclusion on Monday.

“There’s a big elephant in this room … the diversity track record from Iata and from all of us in the aviation industry is pretty abysmal," Christopher Luxon, Air New Zealand’s chief executive, said in his acceptance speech for the Diversity and Inclusion Team award on Monday. “If we want to come back in 12 months time and have another lip-service conversation about it all, we actually need to take some real action between now and when we re-group again.”

Qatar Airways sponsored the awards, a year after its chief executive Akbar Al Baker sparked criticism at the Iata annual meeting in Sydney when he commented that a woman could not do his job. He later apologised but the incident shined a spotlight on the glaring imbalance of women in leadership roles within the male-dominated industry.

Mr Luxon urged airline leaders to take concrete action to redress the gender imbalance by “setting targets with real teeth” and “overcoming unconscious bias” in recruitment rather than setting quotas.

He called on aviation executives to build strong women’s professional networks within organisations, fix the gender pay gap and pledge not to speak at events where women are absent from panels.

“It’s important that women are seen and heard in our industry and in our forums,” he said. “Let me say to all the men in the room: this is not a women’s issue, this is an issue that has huge economic and social impact in our economy.”

For all the talk at last year’s meeting about improving diversity, the “outcome is not good” one year later, Christine Ourmières-Widener, chief executive of UK’s Flybe and a recipient of the Iata diversity award, said.

"The fact that Iata is putting diversity as a priority and making it more visible should have an impact on the outcome and improving diversity of the industry, so let's see," she told The National on the sidelines of the event.

Ultimately, the industry’s goal should be a 50/50 balance between men and woman in top roles, she said.

“Anything different than that doesn’t mean anything. The question is how do you get there and what do you do?” she said.

One solution is to recruit top female senior executives with leadership potential from outside the aviation industry, but airlines have traditionally resisted the idea as they focus on technical expertise rather than leadership qualities, she said.

There is no lack of women in the talent pool and the aviation industry must mentor and support them as well as gain from their expertise, she said.

Iata's chief acknowledged the need for a more diverse workforce.

“There is still a lot of work to be done to achieve the balance we need, particularly on gender diversity at senior levels,” Alexandre de Juniac, Iata’s Director General, said. “Today’s impressive awardees both demonstrate and inspire progress.”

Ms Ourmières-Widener, of UK’s Flybe, won Inspirational Role Model award, Fadimatou Noutchemo Simo, founder and president of Young African Aviation Professional Association (YAAPA), won the High Flyer Award and Air New Zealand won the Diversity & Inclusion Team award. Each winner receives a prize of $25,000, payable to the winner in each of the categories or to their nominated charities, Iata said.