A few words on Al Baker, gender equality, and the importance of business leaders speaking up on social change

So, Aviation is my passion – and there are some things that happen in the industry that have me shaking my head.

Today, it’s gender equality, and the importance of business leaders speaking up for social change.

Already this week at the IATA AGM in Sydney, CNN’s Richard Quest delivered a blistering line on the topic of gender equality in aviation:

Six men in suits will now discuss gender equality

Today, during a panel interview – Qatar Airways CEO & new IATA Chair Akbar Al Baker responds to a question about what IATA is doing on gender equality, especially given the Middle East has the lowest representation of women in airlines.

His response: (audio)

Well it is not at Qatar Airways” (sic), “of course it has (the position of CEO) to be lead by a man because it is a very challenging position & I’m sure that Alan (Joyce) will agree.

Joyce did not agree.

The reaction in the room was palpable, with ghasps, audible boos, and Alan Joyce immediately attempting to lighten the mood given Al Baker’s history for creating controversy, before delivering a sterling answer on the topic.

And that same reaction in the room extended online, with every industry journalist and commentator expressing bewilderment, shock, and calling out how awful, misguided, and tone deaf the remark was. I’d quote some of the tweets, but there’s too many to mention – and i’m writing this on a tablet device.

But what really got my undies in a bunch, was a specific comment from part the aviation peanut gallery – aka a frequent flyer forum.

In a thread about Al Baker’s comments, the one post from one user left me dumbfounded:

Shameful – it is not appropriate for business leaders to be weighing in on social and political issues.

And if you know me well enough, you’d also know my response to it, which i’ve included below.

CEO’s need to be activists. If anything in the current consumer climate, their balance sheets depend on advocacy as part of a well executed Corporate Social Responsibility strategy.

Look at what happened after the Parkland school shooting. Delta, who offered discounts for flights to NRA members was the subject of an effective consumer boycott, which caused them to drop their support of the NRA. The same went for car rental companies, airlines, trucking businesses, tech firms, insurers and a bank that issued an NRA-branded credit card. And the same happened to Fox News, whom advertisers walked away from in droves because of the behaviour of network starts involving issues that matter to their companies, their people, and customers alike.

The fact is – companies realise that consumers will vote with their wallets. Be it social issues, equal rights, or on environmental matters. Why do you think Woolworths and Coles this week basically went tit for tat this week on reducing plastic packaging.

They know that unless they take the lead on issues that are important to their customers – money will go somewhere else.

So, what did I say to this person I thought was ill informed – here it is. It shouldn’t need to be said, but sometimes – you just have to get it off your chest.

What do you think?

Firstly, a bit of context here.

Al Baker is known for being controversial, and for his intended humour not coming across as meant. It’s why Joyce jumped in with his line.

You also heard the reaction of the room, which was mirrored online by every Aviation/Aerospace journalist I know or follow.

Al Baker’s remark was at best tone deaf, and at worse stupid. It should have been patently obvious to him, especially after CNN’s Richard Quest blistering line earlier in the week calling the whole industry out for leadership gender inequality (“Six men in suits will now discuss gender equality”), that even a joke of this nature wouldn’t fly.

But, what strikes me as bizarre – is your comment that business leaders shouldn’t be weighing in on social and political issues.

Are you honestly suggesting that leaders of companies who employ lots of women, or have a substantial part of their workforce who identify LGBTIQ, shouldn’t be pushing for social change that gives equal rights and representation for these groups?

Are you honestly saying that Joyce, and the CEO’s of every major company that came out in support of marriage equality had no business doing so at all?

Should Andrew Forrest stop talking about indigenous equality and representation?

Should Tim Cook stay silent on issues involving data privacy?

Should Marc Benioff (Salesforce) zip his lip, just so he gets a better balance sheet because women in his company don’t have to get equal pay?

Should Donald Trump get away with decimating irreplaceable natural heritage and indigenous monuments because Rose Marcario (Patagonia) has chosen to stay in her lane?

CEO’s and corporate leaders are some of the more powerful voices shining light and bringing awareness to issues of local, national, and even international importance. Adding a voice that’s more likely to get top of the hour news coverage to the issues that should lead the news daily.

Regardless of what he said, I simply cannot find a charitable way at this time to describe just how dense your comments are on the inappropriateness of business leaders such as Al Baker weighing in on these issues.

First screen cap of Facebook comment, and my reply. Full text of the image is included earlier in the page. First screen cap of Facebook comment, and my reply. Full text of the image is included earlier in the page.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.