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Gender quotas are wrong, says first woman airline pilot

written by Adam Thorn | June 3, 2021

This picture of Deborah Lawrie was taken as she battled her court case in 1979 (supplied)

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.

The latest issue of Australian Aviation features a Women in Aviation special

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.

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Comments (22)

  • Mitchell


    Reg Ansett was a ‘dinosaur’, & that’s being very polite.
    Remember when he called his Flight Attendants’, ‘old boilers’.
    Once he was gone, the Company went onto greater heights, in every department.
    That was until Air New Zealand used it as a ‘cash cow’, & sent it broke.
    Absolute shame on them!

  • patrickk


    The quota isn’t about pilots it is about entry cadets after which they have to meet the standards. Not sure what the issue is with that.

  • Paul Merritt


    The headline is incorrect. The first airline woman pilot was Christine Davy who flew for Connellan Airways, later renamed Connair, in the 1960s & 70s in the Australian outback. She was the first female to hold an ATPL (Airline Transport Pilot Licence). Please get your source of information verified before publication. Accuracy is paramount for history and credibility.

    • Vannus


      Yes, Paul, in 1979, Capt Christine Davy checked me in for a Connellan Airways DC-3 flight ASPAYQ. Then she proceeded onto the flight deck, for a fabulous trip to The Rock.
      On the way back, she was a Check Capt for a male pilot.
      On arrival ASP, we were talking as we crossed the tarmac, & she pointed to a Fokker F-27 parked there, in PX livery, & she told me that she would be flying it.
      I was thrilled to have had contact with such a lovely, & qualified lady.

  • Greg Davie


    Your gender should not matter, we want those who are best qualified for the roles. As for quotas, all they do is discriminate. 100 cadet position available, 50 females apply and 100 males apply. All females are selected due to their gender. I am certain, all applicants would expect the selection process to be on merit, not gender. Focus on why females do not see aviation as a potential career for them and you will solve the gender challenge.

  • John


    How refreshing it is to read the remarks of an older person – someone who has seen it all and understands the full picture, versus those who, in the bloom of youth, think they know it all. Deborah tells it as it is and well done to her.

  • James


    Thank you for this article.

    However, it should be pointed out that very, few females are interested in roles that require mechanical aptitude. Most females are simply not interested regardless of whether they are capable or not. Thus, very few females want to become pilots and they also rarely have any interest becoming mechanics or working as a bus/truck/train driver.

    Very, very few females are interested in those fields as as hobby either. I’m sure Australian Aviation’s female clientele is around to 3%-8%. Nothing has ever stopped females from picking up an aviation magazine to read. Or a car magazine. But pretty much all females will go to a different section of the magazine stand. And this is entirely their choice.

  • Td


    If you’ve got the goods you get the job (and the pay) irrespective of different genders that exist today. Simples!

  • Simon Hawkins


    Leading from the front, as she has always done. Good on her, what a rare gem.

  • Brian Jackson


    Selection by gender is ridiculous. The best qualified person should always be selected. Gender selection is just another stupid woke idea.

  • He may have been a “dinosaur” by 21st century standards, but he started a major Australian transport industry icon way back in 1936, against all of the odds.

    • Mitchell


      You obviously didn’t know much about Reg Ansett.
      His attitude to females’ was beyond the pale, so you missed my subtlety totally.
      The fact I stated should’ve given you a clue to what he was like.
      His appalling verbiage, towards his female staff, isn’t probably printable on this forum.

  • Peter


    I think you will find Deborah Lawrie was not Australia’s first airline pilot.

    • Adam Thorn


      She was the first female pilot for a major, as-we-know-it, commercial airline! I understand there will be different interpretations, but I think everyone would get what I’m on about here.

      Thanks for your comment though,


  • Totally agree that the “best person for the job” should get the job. But that isn’t what quotas are about. In this instance, where two people (one male, one female) are identical (ie both meet the requirements for the position), then a quota will force the recruiter to think of the bigger picture. In our business, some 16% of our line pilots are female – including our first ever (in almost 50 years of operation) female Conquest pilot. Being a medium sized operation, there is no where to hide, we can’t afford to carry dead wood and only the very best people get chosen. For the industry of more than 100 years in operation, with averages of female pilots in the 3-5% range, something is very wrong and the tactics to date clearly haven’t worked. As we all know, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result. In a very male dominated environment, we need to give women a hand up, not a hand out.

    • Kym


      Douglas, the reality is that in 100 years of the aviation industry, females have failed to show anywhere near the interest in aviation as males have.
      Nothing is wrong at all.
      Females simply tend not to be interested in aviation. This is clearly obvious when you look at it at a hobby level. Where are the female plane spotters? How many females read Australian Aviation? How many females collect plane models? How many females play Flight Simulator? How many females fly remote control planes? The proportion of females for these is probably in the 3% range or less, just like the proportion of female pilots. Nothing is wrong. It’s just natural.
      Why do women need to be given a “hand up” when their interests lie elsewhere?

  • Wayne


    Finally a voice of reason on the “quota”from someone who was actually affected by gender bias and not someone doing the numbers. Well said Deborah Lawrie.

  • Nik


    Couldn’t agree more with the article… couldn’t disagree more with Douglas’s comments.

    The reason there are less females in Aviation (as pilots) is it doesn’t interest them. Every female I know in my personal life would rather have their nails pulled out than be in a cockpit. My wife cringes every time she thinks I spend all my time in that tiny confined space.

    As has already been said, why isn’t there a push to get a 50/50 split in other professions that are male dominated – mechanic, panel beater, brick layer, plumber, sparky, boiler maker, train driver, bus driver, handy man etc. Why is it that female dominated professions don’t have quotas to hire more males – like hairdresser, nurse, flight attendant (there are more males now but not 50/50), marketing, beautician, masseuse etc. It’s because, as has been said already, that males and females will naturally gravitate towards completely different fields, as a general rule. Thats not to say that a female won’t make a good pilot, its just there a lot less interested in it. One of the best stick and rudder pilots I have flown with is a female!

    So stop this woke rubbish, stop discriminating based on gender (that is exactly what it is) and put everyone through the selection process, give them a final score and then select the best candidates for the job. Simple. If there were 100 female applicants and 100 males, and the top 100 after the selection were 100 females I personally would have no issues with that. Just get the best person for the job. Ask yourself, if you had your family on a flight and something went wrong, who would you want behind the controls? The best individual or the individual thats there just to meet a quota (male or female)?

  • Nik


    One last point. Have a look at all the comments for this article and note what gender everyone is. There is nothing stopping females from reading it and commenting. Ask yourself why this is?

    • Bryan


      ‘Why this is’ you ask, Nik.

      The reason is that anytime a female comments, she is ‘shot down’ in condescending, misogynistic verbiage by male commenters’.
      I’ve seen it happen repeatedly on this website.
      No female is going to put themselves in a position to be abused in anyway whatsoever.
      The world is a difficult place for a female, in any walk of life. She has to strive harder to be ‘accepted’, & unless she is top notch, she falls by the wayside.
      A sad scenario, but all too true.

      • James


        So you think Brian that there is an equal proportion of females reading Australian Aviation but the females simply remain silent to avoid the male commentators?
        I find that incredibly hard to believe.
        As has already been said by many, fewer females are interested in aviation as males. That is why there are fewer female pilots and fewer female aviation buffs.

  • chris


    Except for RM Ansett’s guts and sheer tenacity, there would never have been a company to go “onto greater heights” in the first place. I worked for him and my father worked for him.

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