Last week, the chairman of the board of Qatar Airlines felt constrained to apologize for an off-the-cuff remark about women running airlines.
Akbar Al Baker’s actual comment was, “Of course, it has to be led by a man, because it is a very challenging position.” Mr. Al Bakar, speaking at the meeting of International Air Transport Association, which included all the major airlines of the world, afterwards, said that he was speaking in jest. But I’m not so sure that his comments are actually so far “off the mark” – Recall that I am a woman, an executive, and an organizational psychologist. There has not yet been a woman appointed to head a major airlines company, but there have been a number of women, over the past decade, who were appointed to other, prominent leadership positions in major companies and most of those failed miserably. I won’t take the time to run down the list, but the most notable among them were: Carly Fiorina at Hewlett Packard and Marissa Mayer at Yahoo. Both women were in challenging industries and faced serious challenges. However – and recall that I am a woman – they didn’t meet those challenges with organizational change management skills, but, instead, tried to exert “feminine wiles” to get the job done. That never works – in any organization. And I would guess that it is those bad examples that Al Bakar and others are remembering when they shudder at the thought of having to live through the “growth processes” of women in power. If women want to assume high level management positions, I strongly suggest that they start at the top – that is, that they have the best educations possible in management skills, going in, as they start the climb to the top, and that they then refine that background training with ever-greater responsibility in management positions – And that they gain none of those positions through use of “womanly wiles,” but solely by their hard work and exhibition of skills. Carly Fiorina’s background was one of starting out as a secretary. It might be laudable to be able to mention this as a talking point when running for federal office: “I started out as a secretary and made it to the top of a large organization” but it is hardly the credible skills needed to actually make it to the top and succeed. So, I suggest that we begin to take a closer look at the women who might actually make it to the top – and assure that they are properly equipped and vetted to do the job before we rush to nominate them for those offices, based solely on the fact that they are women. In other words, let’s start to look more closely at the “diversity thing” – and I think we’ll discover that it does us a whole lot of harm and very little good to select someone based solely on the need to “add diversity” to the organization.