When the chief executive of Qatar Airways said this month that a woman could not do his job, industry leaders were quick to criticise. Akbar Al Baker was equally speedy in issuing his “heartfelt apologies” for a remark that has stirred up the gender debate in the aviation sector. Whether it is in the boardroomor the cockpit, the aviation industry trails on the issue of gender and diversity. Only 3 per cent of airline chief executives are women, according to a 2017 survey by industry journal Airline Business of the 100 biggest carriers by revenue. This compared with 7 per cent in the FTSE 100at the time of the study.
The irony was not lost on some that when Mr Baker made his comments, he had just been appointed chairman of the International Air Transport Association's board of governors, which only has twowomenoutof31members. When it comes to pilots, the figures are just as unforgiving. In the US in 2017, just 7 per cent of 609,000 pilots were women, according to data from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Yet Mr Baker's comments demonstrated at least one positive thing, according to Christine Ourmières- Widener, chief executive of UK regional airline Flybe and one of the two women on the Iataboard.
Even five years ago, she said, no one senior would have condemned him. “[Mr Baker's remarks are] putting more emphasis [on the issue] and it could help in the change,” she said. “What happened is good for diversity and gender in our industry.”
However, the figures illustrate how much further the industry needs to progress, particularly in areas such as pay.
As part of a transparency initiative, the UK government uncovered large gender pay gaps in aviation. Ryanair's median hourly rate for women was 72 per cent lower than for men, easyJet's was 46 per cent lower and British Air-ways' 10 per cent lower. The median pay gap across the UK was 9.7 per cent, while Ryanair had only 3per cent of women in its top quartile by pay.
Personal experiences of some women in the industry also highlight disturbing examples of discrimination.
Kathy McCullough, who started as a pilot in the early 1980s, said in the first years of her career discrimination was overt. “You should be home barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen,” was the attitude directed at her, she said. “I just tried not to bristle.”
Ms McCullough, who retired as a captain flying 747s out of Anchorage, Alaska, for Northwest Airlines (now part of Delta), added that there were also subtler means of undermining female pilots in the industry. For example, men made check rides — practical flying tests —more difficult for women by “overloading them” and giving them “too many emergencies to deal with at one time”.
“A lot of the time on the way up, when we're flying for smaller airlines, the check airmen know that they're competing for the same jobs as a woman so they make it harder or bust them because they know the airlines won't hire women with records that are blemished.”
Many of those men were ex-military, Ms McCullough said, a reference echoed by Beverley Harrison, archivist for the British Women Pilots' Association and a retired RAF officer. She says that “the whole commercial flying world has had a tendency to be'fed' by retired RAF pilots”, and as those full-time pilots were only men until the early 1990s, there has been a systemic shortage of women.
Cindy Youngblood, a private jet pilot, says that early in her career she was surprised by a source of discontent: her colleagues' wives.
'Sometimes it feels great because I can stand out, and sometimes it feels isolated because I stand out'
When going for a job, a potential employer told her, “very nicely, that he would hire me but his wife would divorce him”. Ms Youngblood says she appreciated his candour — she was not left questioning her ability — but points out he could not say that today.
Aside from that, Ms Youngblood says the men she has worked with have been “wonderful and supportive” and that she has not experienced the difficulties other women report.
Ms Ourmières-Widener trained as an aeronautical engineer before moving into management and even today finds men patronising her, avoiding technical terms in case she does not understand.
In the allied field of aircraft brokerage, the few female brokers find themselves excluded, says René Banglesdorf, chief executive of Charlie Bravo Aviation. There are “the slights that come with not being part of the good old boys' club” and no appreciation for the intellectual diversity women bring, she added.
At conferences, Ms Banglesdorf said she was one of few women in attendance. “Sometimes that feels great because I feel like I can stand out, and sometimes it feels isolated because I stand out.” At the CAPA, the Centre for Aviation conference in Ireland in May, there were several manels — men-only panels — and at IATA's annual meeting, where Mr Baker made his remarks, male speakers outnumbered female ones by 19 to five.
However, progress is being made with networks to promote and support female pilots such as the International Aviation Womens Association.
A second organisation, Women in Aviation International, has more than 12,000 active members, is running its fourth Girls in Aviation Day this October and has provided $11.5 mins cholarships since 1995. Its corporate sponsors include large airlines, aircraft manufacturers and even Amazon.
Ms McCullough worries that progress can be slow in areas such as maternity leave, which has discouraged women from being pilots. “We are making progress but we shouldn't still have to be having issues like maternity leave in this day and age — but we do.”
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BY JOSH SPERO - TRANSPORT CORRESPONDENT