Qantas’ search for female pilots has led to more workplace harassment

A long way to go.
A long way to go.
Image: AP Photo/Rob Griffith
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Australian airline Qantas has lofty ambitions to increase the number of women in its cockpits.

In 2017, it launched the Nancy Bird Walton initiative, named for the pioneering female pilot, and committed to having women make up at least 20% of its 2018 pilot intake. Within the next decade, the airline said, at least 40% of its new pilot hires will be female. It’s a big jump: As of earlier this year, around 250 of Qantas’ 4,000 pilots were women.

But behind the scenes, according to an independent survey of 2,400 Qantas pilots and cabin crew, there are significant costs for these female pilots. Some said they experienced a backlash against the campaign, and were forced to bear the brunt of their male colleagues’ ire.

While one in four Qantas employees had experienced sexual harassment in the past year from a coworker or passenger, female pilots reported the highest rates of sexual harassment and bullying, according to The Australian, which obtained the Qantas report. In some cases, that bullying includes sexist comments, which two-thirds of female pilots found “common,” or suggestions that they had been given their jobs because of their gender, rather than on merit.

Until 2016, female Qantas pilots had to wear men’s uniforms. Their uniforms may fit better now, but the atmosphere in the cockpit can still be uncomfortable, as one anonymous commenter observed in the report: “The men are always telling stories about female pilots. As soon as a female pilot makes a mistake, it’s as if all female pilots are bad or hopeless.” Other airline colleagues noted a culture of “what happens on tour stays on tour,” where whistle-blowers are made to feel like trouble-makers or “put through the absolute ringer” (sic) for speaking out. Qantas did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Female pilots face comparable challenges worldwide, with harassment and discrimination reported at airlines in Canada, the US, and the UK.

In the US, pilots have the greatest adjusted gender pay gap of all professions, according to a Glassdoor report, with a 27% gap in base pay. Surprisingly, this gap appears to be widening. In an email, Geoff Murray, a former commercial pilot and current Oliver Wyman aerospace consultant, said this disparity is probably the result of a lack of seniority among female pilots, who tend to be newer recruits. The first woman employed as a pilot in the US, Emily Warner, was hired as recently as 1973, he said: even now, women make up about 6% of all US commercial pilots. The numbers are gradually creeping up, however: In 2018, 7,136 women were certified to fly as airline pilots in the US, up 26% from 2009, out of a total of 99,880.

With aviation facing unprecedented growth, airlines are moving fast to head off a growing shortage of pilots. Many have concluded that women are the answer, and adopted similar policies accordingly: Virgin Australia last year announced that it would be aiming for gender parity among its 2019 cadets. But despite these initiatives, it’s still rare to hear a woman’s voice over the public address system. More concerning is how many of the old guard seem to prefer it that way.