posted by Sheryl Barden on July 15, 2022

gender discrimination - Jessica Webster female pilot - Sheryl Barden AINsight blog

This AINsight guest column about gender discrimination originally appeared in Aviation International News on July 15, 2022.

A recent industry article continues to resonate in my head and, quite frankly, still makes my stomach churn. The author, James Albright—who’s also a pilot—was writing about integrating new hires into the flight department.

It was an excellent article until I hit this passage, “You may be surprised that some in your flight department have deep-seated prejudices against certain types of pilots. As archaic as it may sound, I still encounter pilots who vow to never fly with female pilots.”

This last sentence is what stopped me in my tracks, and it left me thinking about the issue for days. I was hopeful those biases had long since been put to rest. That’s when I knew it would be the topic for my next blog. 

Is This Still Happening?

Within the last 10 years, a female pilot we worked with shared that she flew only with two out of about six pilots in her department. The reason: because their wives wouldn’t allow it. And, to maintain harmony, the chief pilot only scheduled her with himself and one other pilot.

In another instance, we introduced a very accomplished female former Air Force pilot to one of our clients. They interviewed her and wanted to hire her. Yet when they discussed it within the department, one of the pilots said that there was no way he would fly with her because his wife would never go for it. So they quickly dropped her from consideration. (And we just as quickly dropped them as a client!)

Perhaps those wives really did object. Or maybe it was the pilots who chose to use that excuse as a means of hiding their own objections. Whichever the case, no employee or spouse should have that much power over a work schedule. Not to mention, have control over who to hire based on their gender, or, for that matter, their race or sexual orientation.

As the boss, the way to handle this situation is to say, “That is not appropriate here, and if you feel that way, this is no longer the place for you to work.” Believe me, your HR partner will have your back on that statement.

The Workplace is Changing

Today nearly every business aviation department is encouraged—if not under pressure—to hire for diversity in all ranks of aviation, especially pilots. Yet, according to the FAA, we’re still running in single percentage digits for female ATP pilots.

Despite the low numbers of female aviators, I’m proud that business aviation is truly leading the correction to this statistic. In 2021, more than a third of NBAA’s 40 Under 40 pilot recognitions went to women.

Further, all of the women pilots I’ve talked to have said that, for the most part, they have had fantastic male champions. So here is a shout out to all of you who have supported, championed, and lifted up the next generation, be they women or other underrepresented members of our industry. Whether or not you know it, you are an ally.

Being an ally requires you to use your voice. As a manager, peer, or subordinate, I encourage you to stop the conversation in its tracks. Have the courage to say, “What you said or what you did is inappropriate.” 

‘Another Empty Kitchen’

Thankfully, the biases toward female pilots are far fewer today. But systemic issues remain.

In fact, just last year, airline captain Jenny Beatty wrote a blog—“Another Empty Kitchen”—compiling the awful things people have said to female pilots over the years. I recently asked her if these comments are still common. Sadly, her response was yes, but they’ve gotten more subtle and devious.

Business aviation captain Kimberly Perkins once told me that an air traffic controller said to her over the radio, “Well, another empty kitchen.” Incredibly, that was in 2007.

Fast forward to 2019, Perkins, as part of her doctoral research, polled 896 women pilots to ask if they’d ever heard the “empty kitchen” comment over the course of their careers. Of the those who responded, 13 percent said they had heard it directed at themselves over their piloting career.

A newer female business aviation pilot told me this: “I’m very fortunate regarding the men I have flown with. But I’ve had passengers be off-putting toward me and blatantly disregard me—for example, not shaking my hand or acknowledging me as their pilot because I’m a woman.”

What to Do

What should you do about it as an aviation professional? When you witness or hear about any discrimination based on gender, race, or sexual preference, please squelch it. Whoever it is, call that person out and tell them, “This is not okay! You cannot say this in front of me! I will not tolerate it.” Whatever you do, please do not just turn the other way and say, “Oh that’s just Bob (or Bill or Ted) again.”

And if you see a customer blatantly not recognizing a pilot as the highly trained professional they are, be overt. Make sure that they know she, or he, is a fully trained, highly qualified pilot who is responsible for their safety.

If you are an aviation leader, it’s your responsibility to develop and sustain an inclusive culture, so you must first understand what’s happening and then bridge the gap. Once you are aware of the issue, the next step is to educate your team and passengers that female pilots stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their male counterparts.

After all, we need more women in business aviation. And as Dr. Tony Kern recently shared in an article regarding harassment of women in aviation, “Let’s not shut out half of the qualified candidates because men don’t have the courage, will, or decency to fix this problem.”

Sheryl Barden, CAM, is the president and CEO of Aviation Personnel International, the longest-running recruiting and HR consulting firm exclusively serving business aviation. A thought leader on all things related to business aviation professionals, Barden is a former member of NBAA’s board of directors and currently serves on the NBAA advisory council.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily endorsed by AIN Media Group.

    • Sadly Lisa, you are correct. And I just heard from a dispatcher who told me that a pilot told her that unless she was “cooking him dinner at home or serving him coffee in the cockpit” he didn’t care what she had to say. Whether overt like this or subtle, we need to stand up and say it is not appropriate.

  • Sounds like some of these hiring managers need to back up a step a weed these Pilots out right out of the gate when they are given the oppertunity to join a Flight Department. During an Interview this question of bias needs to be recognized and just maybe the one who gets hired isnt the one that can only crew with ones own gender. When I was a Flight Instructor some of the best Pilots were women and in the end is this not what we want Crewing our Planes, some of the Best?

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