* Al Baker says remarks were a joke
* IAG chief says controversy should spur action on diversity
* Only six of IATA's 280 member airlines have female CEOs
* IATA director says aviation has a lot of work to do (Adds blog by IATA director-general, rules on board jobs)
By Tim Hepher and Jamie Freed
SYDNEY, June 6 (Reuters) - The head of Qatar Airways apologised on Wednesday for saying that a woman could not do his job, while global airlines pledged to speed up efforts to break down gender imbalances in aviation.
Qatar Airways Chief Executive Akbar Al Baker said his remarks at the closing of a global airlines gathering on Tuesday had been intended as a joke and taken out of context.
He defended his airline's record of gender diversity, saying 44 percent of its staff were female including some in senior positions.
"Quite frankly I think the press took it out of context. They ... blew it out of proportion. It was just a joke...I apologise for it," Al Baker told a CAPA-Centre for Aviation conference in Sydney.
Asked on Tuesday about female employment among Middle East airlines and why his job as CEO could not be done by a woman, al Baker had said: "Of course it has to be led by a man because it is a very challenging position."
He made the comments at a news conference following a meeting of airlines group International Air Transport Association (IATA), moments after being elected its chairman.
The remarks drew criticism on social media.
The issue of gender imbalance in aviation was a hot topic at the three-day annual meeting of IATA - only six of whose 280 member airlines, or 2 percent, have female chief executives.
Al Baker later said Qatar Airways was the first carrier in the Middle East to have female pilots.
On Wednesday, the director-general of IATA noted that al Baker had earlier apologised for his comments.
"But the immediate reaction illustrated that expectations for change are high. And it is absolutely clear that aviation has a lot of work to do on gender balance at senior levels," Alexandre de Juniac added in a blog on IATA's website.
Al Baker is one of the airline industry's most outspoken figures, known for provocative and often humorous criticism of rival airlines or suppliers, but he has also drawn criticism over the judgment of some of his declarations.
In 2017 he apologised after calling U.S. flight attendants "grandmothers" during a trade row with U.S. airlines, prompting an airline union to accuse him of sexism and age discrimination.
In 2014, Qatar Airways defended policies on pregnancy and marriage for cabin crew after coming under fire over working conditions in the conservative Gulf emirate.
Asked at Wednesday's CAPA conference whether he truly believed that only a man could do his job, Al Baker said, "No, I don’t believe that. As a matter of fact (at) Air Italy the majority shareholder has shortlisted women to be CEO and as minority shareholder we are actively encouraging that."
Sharing a podium, Willie Walsh, the head of British Airways owner IAG, said the industry had a long way to go in promoting women, starting with IATA, a quasi-international organisation with two women on its 31-person board.
"This whole debate should encourage more," Walsh said.
"If you look at the board it is predominantly middle-aged white men from Europe. We have more diversity on the board now than we have had for a long time, and we have to strive to improve that situation."
Al Baker pledged to bring more women onto IATA's board, but said there had been few applicants. Board members must be a CEO. IATA says just 3 percent of airlines have a female leader.
Delegates said seats are also divided up by region, meaning some national airlines may have to release influential board seats to favour a female candidate from their own region, but a woman in one region could not benefit from a vacancy in another.
"Bridging the gap at senior levels will not be simple," de Juniac wrote.
The gender row comes amid a deeper debate about whether airlines based on different national social models, recruitment policies and wage structures can compete on equal terms.
U.S. and some European airlines have accused Gulf carriers of unfair competition based on subsidies and social policies, but Walsh - whose group counts Qatar Airways as a shareholder - said he believed Gulf airlines competed on an equal footing. (Reporting by Tim Hepher and Victoria Bryan; Editing by Stephen Coates and Susan Fenton)