New Zealand's former prime minister, Helen Clark, has led a chorus of condemnation against Qatar Airways' chief executive Akbar Al Baker's comments that only a man could do his job.
Mr Al Baker made the remark – which drew gasps and groans from the media – at a press conference in Sydney in response to a question about how the International Air Transport Association will tackle the problem of gender inequality in key management positions.
He answered saying, “of course, it has to be led by a man because it is a very challenging position."
He had just been named chairman of the body’s board of governors at the time. Mr Al Baker has since apologised, saying his comments run counter to the company's record with women in leadership roles and adding that his comments had been "sensationalised by the media".
Studies have shown that having more women in senior leadership positions actually make companies more profitable.
One conducted for Peterson Institute for International Economics in 2016 showed that companies which have more women in leadership perform better “in a magnitude that is not small”.
His comments drew immediate, and strong, condemnation on social media.
“Sounds like the head of Qatar Airways has a few things to learn about gender equality: he claims a woman could not do his job,” wrote Mrs Clark in a post on Twitter.
“He’s just been elected head of IATA which has only two women on 31 Member Board of Governors. Time to tackle issues in the industry!”
However, others pointed out some airlines are already working hard to promote gender equality.
“Good thing we have a choice! Just fly Qantas they're hiring more women,” wrote ChiefExecutiveWomen – a group which represents Australia’s most senior women leaders - on Twitter.
“CEO Alan Joyce: "If we're leaving out almost 50 per cent of the population in our search for the next generation of 640,000 pilots, we're clearly not tapping into all of the talent".”
Spokespeople for Emirates Airline and Etihad Airways both declined to comment.
But David Mackenzie, managing director of Mackenzie Jones Group, one of the largest independent recruitment groups in the GCC, said companies like Emirates act as bastions for gender equality in the industry.
“If you look at the way the airline industry is going – certainly companies like Emirates have all-female flight crews now, pilots for some of their biggest planes – there is no proof that a woman cannot do a job as good as a man,” he said.
Yet comments like this are very damaging to other regional carriers like Emirates, said Louise Karim – Managing Director Mums@Work, a specialised recruitment agency which connects employers with women seeking flexible work with employers.
“Not only does it set us back in the region, but also for the company, the brand perception and the employees’ perception – what are the other people in the company going to think when they read that?”
Qatar has not made the same strides as the UAE in the issue of women’s rights, which could partly explain Mr Al Baker’s comments, said Mr Mackenzie.
“Sheikh Mohammed has actively gone out to say there is a gender pay gap and we need to sort it. So he has gone on record to say there is a problem.
“Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Sheikh Mohammed bin Salman has made a point of saying 'why can’t women drive?' And that is perceived to be a country that is very far behind the UAE,” said Mr Mackenzie.
The recruiter has worked with both Emirates and flydubai in the past, which both have very gender neutral policies.
“It has come from the very top,” said Mr Mackenzie.