Australia’s first woman airline pilot, Deborah Lawrie, has said she believes gender quotas are discriminatory and devalue the achievements of those who get the job.
“I believe it’s wrong. They’re attacking it from the wrong end,” she said. “They need to go to the other end, and encourage women to get in the industry in the first place. By virtue of getting more applying, you’ll get more who are competitive with the guys.”
Lawrie is a trailblazing figure, having won her place in the cockpit by triumphing in a 10-month legal case against Ansett, which then refused to employ woman pilots at all. She was speaking to Australian Aviation for our latest print magazine. To find out more and subscribe, click here.
“The best person should always be selected for a job,” said Lawrie. “And I think quotas devalue the ones who get the job through merit.
“So, in other words, if you say you’ve got to have 50 per cent guys, 50 per cent females, you are discriminating against the guys who might have been more qualified, over women who are less qualified.
“Plus, the women who are already there, who reached all the entry prerequisites, they feel devalued and think, ‘Oh well, it didn’t matter if I wasn’t good enough or not, I would have got in anyway just because of my gender.’”
Instead, she said airlines should work harder to encourage school leavers to get interested in the industry, because many girls don’t think of it as a potential career.
“If there was more emphasis on it being a possibility as a career for a female, you’d get more applying anyway,” she said.
However, Lawrie also thought great progress had been made and pilot selection had “improved out of sight” from when she struggled to get her break.
“I would have just walked straight through the door with the qualifications I had, without any problems whatsoever,” she said.
Lawrie’s comments are interesting as most of the Australian industry has embraced ‘targets’ for their cadetship programs in particular – though many would argue there are different definitions, interpretations and blurred lines between what constitutes a ‘target’, ‘goal’ or a ‘quota’, and how they are implemented.
Now-defunct Tigerair was the most prominent advocate of targets and gender diversity.
At its end, Tiger’s female representation in the cockpit stood at 8 per cent, making it among the highest in the world.
However, brand CEO Merren McArthur said the figure was “nothing to crow about”. She transformed her all-male top team into one with a 60–40 split and set, and surpassed a target of ensuring 50 per cent of recruits on its cadetship scheme were female.
In 2017, Qantas committed to a goal of at least 50 per cent in its pilot cadet intake being female in a decade’s time.
However, chief executive Alan Joyce also said the airline would work “at the grassroots level” to encourage girls and women into studies that could lead to a career in aviation.
“We just need to reinforce the message that girls and women belong in technical jobs,” he said. Qantas was last reported to have hit 5 per cent of its pilots being women – higher than the often reported world average of just 3 per cent.
Finally, in 2018, Virgin said it was planning for a 50:50 gender target for its 2019 cadetship program.
Lawrie represents one of Australian Aviation’s most iconic figures. During 10 months beginning in January 1979, Lawrie battled through five separate legal cases to force Ansett to end its policy of refusing to employ women pilots.
In that time, she had her family planning intentions questioned, was told women weren’t strong enough to fly large aircraft and was even informed that menstrual tension could hinder her performance.
She became Australia’s oldest female airline pilot, too, when she flew with Tigerair, before being made redundant when the brand was discontinued.
The new issue of the Australian Aviation print magazine features a Woman in Aviation Special, examining the issues and potential solutions to encourage more women to get involved in the industry.
Lawrie will also be separately appearing on our Sky’s the Limit podcast, to be released on 17 June.