How Industry, Unions Hurt Women Pilot Recruitment & Retention — Part II

Key Changes Needed to Increase Women Pilots

As explained in Part I, entrenched work rules – including seniority and failure to establish better work/life balance policies – are key reasons why so few women are flying the line. Equally important is the fact it has been known for years changes are wanted by pilots of both genders indicating both industry and unions represent significant barriers to change.  Indeed, airlines are behind other industries in promoting women into management.

Special Treatment Counterproductive

Credit: Shutterstock

Women pilots are not asking for special treatment and, in fact, say that is the worst thing that could happen. Rather, they are seeking sensible changes to outdated work rules that have remained in place for 70+ years. They are frustrated by work rules changes for other women in the airline workforce, but not for pilots.

They are fighting for policies that will help all pilots achieve better balance while benefiting the company bottom line.

In fact, their arguments reveal a business-based approach. “Allowing a pilot to have six months maternity/paternity leave is more cost effective than trying to replace that pilot with a new hire,” said Captain A. “The recruiting and training costs alone would cost the airline more than if they had a female pilot on maternity leave. If not, she either has to return to work or quit and some have quit.”

Tellingly, she noted that at her airline more male pilots are out on medical and military leaves than female pilots out on maternity leave. With the numbers, that is to be expected but it puts women’s accommodations into context with those required for men.

“With the shift in family dynamics, family issues are a concern for both male and female pilots,” said Captain A. “More male pilots are interested in being an active parent in their children’s lives. Dads have missed the birth of their child. We want a policy accommodating taking time off to be there.”

Captain H agrees. “Today’s generation expects to have a career and a family and expect companies to accommodate that.”

Corporate America is changing, however slowly. A reflection of how important such issues are, is the growing number of companies – 14%, according to National Partnership for Women & Families – are offering paid leave. Meanwhile, US HR policies are woefully behind their global competitors.

Biological Challenges

Restrictive maternity and return-to-work policies are cited as one of the major reasons the industry loses women pilots and why it is fighting a losing battle to attract more. 

In 2016, The New York Times published When the Captain is Mom: Accommodating New Motherhood at 30,000 feet chronicling the problems new mothers have balancing life and careers including challenges expressing milk where the default venue is the bathroom. 

An alternative is Momavia, a private structure being deployed by airports to accommodate nursing passengers.

Accommodating Work/Life Balance

The most successful regional airline in the US has addressed these issues head on and found benefits.

SkyWest Pilots’ Women’s Assistance Committee was founded by Captain A and her colleague First Officer L and supported by both male and female pilots. The two pilots were joined by a host of volunteers to develop a handbook, since adopted by both the airline and the pilots association, to attract and retain women pilots.

Indeed, Captain A said retention was a huge part of the reason for their efforts. “We’ve had pilots quit because they couldn’t get an extension on their unpaid maternity leave and that is not good for anyone after an airline has invested in training that pilot,” she said. “By educating them we show young female pilots that being a mom and a pilot is possible and already a reality for many here.”

The committee speaks to each new-hire class which also raises the consciousness of male colleagues. It also created the first female mentoring committee in the US airline industry.

The handbook discusses all the issues surrounding starting a family, including planning a family, insurance, returning to work and tips on pumping on the road. It also covers scheduling techniques to be home more or nurse better along with sections on childcare. There are also articles on post-partum depression and exposure to radiation while pregnant.

“We wanted to address the issues women may face head on because they need to plan if they want a family,” said Captain A. “It was a shock when I went on maternity leave and lost my insurance. That never occurred to me. I was able to go on my husband’s but still you lose your paycheck and your insurance. So, planning has to start a year ahead to have disability insurance in place.”

The new policies forged by the handbook allow 12 months unpaid post-birth leave. But treating maternity as a disability is a problem. Losing insurance and unpaid leave are major issues.

“Male pilots are grateful for our committee,” said Captain A. “I had a captain call me for guidance after his co-pilot excused herself to express milk. He wanted to make sure he was doing the right thing and asked advice on how he could help her. That shows me our male pilots care.”

Captain C agreed. “Without an accommodation for breastfeeding, we have few choices and that’s bad for pilots and airlines. Some women quit, some take unpaid leave if available, and some make do by pumping in the lav. I see the only solution for airlines to accommodate breast-feeding is to provide alternatives to flying, such as paid/unpaid leave or job sharing.”

Retired Captain Kathryn McCullough took a ground job when she started a family. “I loved working in the simulator or office while I was pregnant,” she said. “The airline invests an exorbitant amount of money in every pilot. It can’t afford to lose any pilot mid-career. Pilots should also be able to take assignments on the ground.”

Systemic Whitewashing

Perkins, a pilot for more than 15 years, explained sympathetic men are part of the problem because of the large number of men who make the flight deck a tough place for women. Her realization of the problem came when she keyed the mike to communicate with ATC. In return, she heard a pilot on another aircraft say, “another empty kitchen.” It wasn’t the last time she heard it, either. Think about that. Perkins first piloting job was at Air Wisconsin starting in 2006, meaning such comments are part of the 21st Century mindset of male pilots. And it gets worse.

“Sixty four percent of male pilots say pushing for equity on the flight deck is not their responsibility,” said Perkins in a 2020 study, identifying the most significant problem women face. “Only 16% are actively doing something to make a positive change while 20% want to help but don’t know how. When I share stories of being called a ‘token’ or having someone say ‘empty kitchen,’ they are shocked and immediately attempt to discredit the occurrence.”

She called this systemic whitewashing. “One cannot be part of the solution without acknowledging the problem,” she said. “A chasm exists between our worlds. It is time we build a bridge. Ignorance is no longer tolerable. Rarely is a social injustice effectively addressed without assistance from the majority. We need men to stop justifying the behavior of their sexist colleagues and start defending the disenfranchised.”

Unions Part of the Problem

Normally pilots would turn to the union to make changes, but unions are part of the problem.

“The company is going to want something in return and unions don’t want to spend political or negotiating capital on this issue,” McCullough explained. “They see women pilots as a small minority. ALPA has been one of the worst offenders because the majority of dues come from men. I think management is using the union as a reason they can’t enact common sense policies.” 

ALPA is fully aware of work/life issues since, until 2018, it rejected efforts of women pilots and even fired the captain pushing for change.

But a survey showing men wanted the same changes to work rules forced a change of heart. Sadly, the signal it sent was clear, women’s concerns are not worthy on their own and, by resisting change, ALPA was out of step with the majority of its membership.  

According to ALPA’s survey, the issues women raise are much the same as their male counterparts. In a significant departure from previous generations, millennial employees now worry as much about quality of life as they do about pay, requiring a seismic shift in corporate and union policies.

Captain Kimberly Perkins. Source: Captain Perkins

Work/Life Balance Met with Intransigence, Not Solutions

“While discussing work/life balance with my manager in a previous position, I explained the importance of attending my daughter’s recital,” Perkins recalled. “In an exhausted huff and a twinge of annoyance, my manager said, ‘You chose to be a pilot, which means you’ll miss things.’ I pondered that response for weeks. I’m sure many pilots have heard similar rhetoric.”

The manager’s attitude was wrong. “The statement promotes the notion that pilots cannot have a good work/life balance,” she said. “It provides no solution and is apathetic in nature. Throwing one’s hands up and saying, ‘it is what it is’ is the equivalent of throwing in the towel on developing a solution. I refuse to accept that one must choose a career of flying or having a family life.”

It also fails to put such requests into context with the performance-based metrics emerging as part of efforts to gain both efficiency and improved safety. For any such request, managers should ask whether this pilot is a gold brick or a valued employee. The impact goes beyond gender and incorporates often ignored issues such as harassment or other discriminatory practices in the workplace. Evaluating the who of a complaint or a request is key to establishing equity.

“Flexibility is the key on leave policies – and listening – because every situation is different,” McCullough explained.

Talk Is Cheap

Credit: Shutterstock

Airlines and unions also need to be familiar with the impact of a lack of diversity to the bottom line. All these issues come into play no matter who is requesting time off.

Judging from its website, little has changed at ALPA despite its survey calling for better work/life balance. It seems as if ALPA is trolling for members by talking a good game but its actions speak louder than its words. For instance, it does not list Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) among its top advocacy priorities. Nor is it mentioned in its Future of the Pilot Profession material.

Indeed, its presentation at the 2020 Women in Aviation International (WAI) conference, the first attended by the president of the union, called the issues raised by women pilots “misinformation.” Equally important, ALPA’s overall message was clear – no changes needed.

“Female pilots face unique challenges and often receive misinformation about how to strike a work-life balance,” the union said on its website on the session. “[Pilots] provided real-life examples of how they’re successfully balancing family obligations and enjoying a career they’re passionate about.”

On the panel, FedEx First Officer Kandy Bernskoetter said: “Women can have it all – a successful flying career and a family if that’s what they choose. While there are certainly some challenges that need to be addressed, the career offers many opportunities not available to those who work a regular 9–5, Monday–Friday job. Having the support of a partner, family and the community helps to create a positive synergy between a pilot’s personal life and their professional one.”

Even Bernskoetter acknowledged challenges need to be addressed. Her discussion of supportive partners is as problematic for pilots as it is for any other employee in society and ignores a major societal shift. The fact is today’s economy has working couples and women working outside the home is not a choice but a necessity. Beyond that, it completely ignores the needs of those who do not have these support systems.

“When compared to aviation dads, pilot moms overwhelmingly have working partners, which means no stay-at-home parent,” said Perkins. “Studies from MIT and a variety of think tanks show that diverse groups make better decisions and are more productive. It is not about lowering standards; it is about removing obstacles that hinder others from joining the process.”

Source, ediTT = Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Think Tank

DE&I and Safety

Last summer’s social justice protests, caused ALPA to take stance.

“While the airline pilot profession today is not yet fully representative of the diverse population we proudly serve, ALPA is committed to change, and we are working to create a just and inclusive airline pilot culture,” said ALPA President Joe DePete. “We must make certain all individuals – regardless of race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation – find the piloting profession inspiring and accessible. I established the President’s Committee for Diversity and Inclusion, led by JetBlue First Officer Camila Turrieta to advance this work. Our committee strives to demonstrate inclusivity and educate under-represented communities about the career opportunities our profession offers. There is simply no place in our profession –or in our world – for discrimination of any kind.”

But that begs a serious question. If it were actually doing what DePete says, would the National Gay Pilots Association (NGPA) or the International Association of Women Airline Pilots (ISA+21) even exist? While these are not bargaining units, they do reflect a failure to address their needs by legacy unions.

Remember, as we learned in Part I, economists say organizations must make DE&I and social justice more than a marketing campaign.

Interestingly, A:PA cited safety on why fighting discrimination is important during the NGPA conference, an argument Perkins has made for several years in many industry publications.

“Any form of discrimination or prejudice can cause a communication breakdown that can trigger a degradation of operational safety,” said United First Officer Richard Swindell, chair of ALPA’s Professional Development Group in observing increasing diversity of airline pilots. “As an association, we must acknowledge and understand corporate and flight deck demographic changes, as well as our own membership cultural changes. It’s important to understand what these changes mean to our industry, our profession and our union. When you sit in the cockpit, we’re all wearing the same uniform as a professional pilot. If you have an issue, we’ll address it just like we would for anyone else.”

But does it? Actions speak louder than words and ALPA’s record is not good when it comes to diversity as reflected in its treatment of women’s issues.

Lutte’s Recommendations

The fact of the matter is airlines no longer have a choice if they are to remain competitive in the workforce. Rebecca Lutte outlined a pathway for change which applies equally to women and other minority constituencies, including people of color and LGBTQ. But, as she said, it starts at the top.

  • Start with organization CEOs, Chairs and Board members in individual discussions on their understanding of inclusion and the impact on representation.
  • Understand how this features in the bigger picture of organizational performance and facilitate alignment of passion and vision for future outcomes. Agree on a routine of conversation several times per year to reflect, observe, and revisit.
  • Investment not tokenism. Agree how inclusion and representation can be measured and incorporated into organizational performance measures. Introduce an immediate program, inviting colleagues throughout the organization to build inclusion into their role and focus to determine awareness and appetite.
  • Identify an organization champion who will build the community of inclusion leads throughout the organization and be supported, recognized, and rewarded as a longer-term plan is developed.
  • Plan an organization design review to understand how roles can be restructured to accommodate inclusion review and recommendations.
  • Launch a working group to understand a sustainable long-term approach to measurement within signatory organizations and how to resource the central collation and reporting of the information.
  • Don’t be a ‘one hit wonder.’ Build on the individual discussions to ensure commitment to long term change and what it will take as well as the longer-term vision.
  • Agree how best to start sending practical messages immediately about what can be done to drive inclusion and gender balance.
  • Adopt people practices including performance, talent, engagement and reward to identify gaps or available options to build a sustainable change platform.
  • Identify a passionate, accountable executives responsible for the success of the program to support and advise on the long-term change program who can influence stakeholders and dedicate time to galvanize support.

Women pilots have eloquently defined the problems encountered by the pilot corps and not restricted themselves to their own interest but accommodated the interests of their male counterparts and their companies. Consequently, we know, as we have long known, the remiediation required although the political will to make these change does not now exist. We also have solid recommendations from many quarters on how companies must change and it only remains for them — and unions — to start the hard work necessary.

The problem is companies and unions often respond to women and other minorities with how they have to change. That is dangerous and passes the buck. It is the system that has to change, period.

How Airlines, Unions Hurt Women Pilot Recruitment & Retention Part 1

Published by Kathryn B. Creedy

Kathryn B. Creedy is a veteran aviation journalist and communications strategist. My byline has appeared in CNN Travel, The Points Guy, BBC Capital, Los Angeles Times, Forbes Online, The Washington Post, Flyer Talk, Business Traveler, Business Travel Executive, Afar, Flightglobal, Centre for Aviation, Aviation Week & Space Technology, Low Fare & Regional Airlines, Inflight, Business Airports International, Airports, Centerlines, Regional Gateway, Runway Girl Network and Metropolitan Airport News among others. In 2018, I was cited for the Sapphire Pegasus Business Aviation Award for her work as a business aviation journalist. Created four newsletters, including two web publications Author: Time Flies - The History of SkyWest Airlines. Consistently received bonuses or commendations throughout my career. Founded Commuter/Regional Airline News, building it to become the bible of the industry. Co-founded C/R Airline News International to cover Europe. Founding editor of Aviation Today's Daily Brief, VLJ Report. Founding Senior Analyst North America for Centre for Aviation and North American Editor for Low Fare & Regional Airlines and Inflight. Key Words: Aviation, travel, business jets, commercial, aircraft, airlines, publishing, public relations, corporate communications, media specialist,

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