Airlines’ flight decks lack diversity

“The chief pilot asked me to hire a black female pilot so we could check off a ‘diversity’ box on a reporting form so we could keep our government contracts,” a human resources director of a mid-sized air cargo transport company told me last year at a pilot recruiting event. “Once I did hire that woman, the chief pilot came back to me and said to never hire another one [black female pilot] again. Things are gonna stay the way they’ve always been around here,” she said.

That same day, a captain at a large regional airline said his company probably isn’t going to hire black pilots anymore because “they drop out of training or quit after a year here.”

{mosads}Research shows that minority pilots, including female pilots, are as capable, if not more capable and qualified, than their white male counterparts even though coworkers and the public attribute the reason for their being hired as the need to fill quotas.

The flight deck of U.S. airlines remains a predominantly white male landscape. Besides Helen Richey, the first female commercial pilot, hired in 1932 — subsequently forced to quit a year later due to a change in U.S. regulations that forbid women to fly in conditions other than “fair weather” — it wasn’t until 1973 that women were allowed back into the flight decks of U.S. airlines. Twenty-two years onward, the first black woman would earn her wings and become captain of a major airline (UPS). So novel and memorable, Patrice Clark-Washington’s mannequin and uniform remain on permanent display at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in Washington.

Today, 4.1 percent of airline transport pilots (ATPs) are women, 2.7 percent are black or African-American, 2.5 percent are Asian and 5 percent are Hispanic or Latino.

An analysis of segregation in U.S. industry hiring practices using data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for the years 1966 to 2003 that accounted for race, ethnicity and sex, shows that workplace desegregation stalled at 1980 levels. The failure has in part contributed to the monolithic demography of U.S. ATPs and a culture of whiteness and masculinity in the flight deck.

While the airline industry is not alone in its discriminatory hiring practices, it is perhaps emblematic of what is taking place across the nation. Hiring and employment regulations are being adhered to on paper and quietly subverted in practice. It is time to address the policy failures of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It’s time to move beyond just commemorating the achievements of individuals like Patrice Clark-Washington as museum installations. It is quite possibly insulting to place Clark-Washington on a pedestal while silently eliminating opportunity and the mobility of those who wish to follow in her footsteps.

Zirulnik is a research associate at the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes and a Ph.D. candidate in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University, where he focuses on issues of conflict and intercultural communication within organizations. He works as an independent consultant and is a flight attendant for a large international airline.

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