During his presentation on the opening day of the Bombardier Safety Standdown yesterday morning, Dr. Tony Kern, founding principal and CEO of Convergent Performance, challenged attendees to eliminate the culture of sexual harassment that discourages women from participating in aviation. Kern didn’t mince words and he explained that resolving this problem would quickly solve the business aviation worker shortage because women would feel comfortable joining the industry.
“Gentlemen, we have a problem, and that problem is we have an industry that preys on women,” he began. While some may say “it’s not that bad, it is that bad,” he added.
Kern cited a study released last year, “Breaking Barriers for Women in Aviation: Flight Plan for the Future,” published by the Women in Aviation Advisory Board. “I saw this chart,” he said, referring to a portion of the study, “and this cannot possibly be true; 71 percent have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in aviation settings. Look at those numbers, I won’t read them to you, they’re just disgusting!
“Numbers are great,” he said, “but sometimes you need to have the personal insight from somebody like captain Ariane Morin. She allowed me to use this quote from a LinkedIn post she made: “Harassment is often dismissed as the cost of being in a male-dominated field. There is no reward or resolution for whistleblowers and only the risk of being ostracized for speaking up. The level of casual sexual objectification and sexual proposition destroys your self-worth and teaches you to believe that your only value is in the sexual opportunity you present. It makes you hate to go to work when you don’t know who you’ll be sitting next to in the cockpit. Your psychological safety isn’t considered. It’s suffocating. A professional environment shouldn’t be where you seek a sexual conquest, much less in a safety-critical industry.”
Kern noted that Morin no longer flies in a multi-crew environment but has become a cropduster. “So she’s still flying but she’s not flying with men anymore in the cockpit because we did this to her.
“This cannot stand! And you know what’s worse? We created this culture, aviation created a culture, a predatory culture, on women. Go back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, this is Southwest Airlines in the coffee, tea, or me era,” he said while displaying a photo of an ad on-screen during his presentation. “We intentionally sexualized women for profit to entice more customers to come on the fun airlines. And when these women came through the door onto the flight deck and into the maintenance hangar and into leadership positions, that culture didn’t go away. It was like, that was then, this is now. We have to be intentional in getting rid of this culture.”
In speaking with a large company about these issues, Kern was struck by the attitude of leaders who agreed that tackling harassment is important but the company was afraid to highlight the issue while it was trying to recruit women.
“I want you to stop and think about that for a minute,” Kern said. “Okay, if we highlight that we’re bringing them into what might be a predatory culture, according to our own data, they won’t come. So let’s bring them in anyway and hope they survive it? Because there’s a few that have learned how to survive in it? And the rest can just be collateral damage? Bullshit. We are not going to do that! I am not going to stand for that in my industry. Now’s the time for leadership and not only is it the time, it’s the place.”
On a positive note, Kern pointed out that business aviation could be the ideal industry to attract female workers. “Business aviation is the perfect place to be able to tell women that you can come here because we are safer, it will be more fulfilling, we can help you with work-life balance issues, all of the things that are important, we do better than the rest of the industry. Because we take it seriously and we’ve rooted it out.
“If we were to do that, we don’t have a pilot shortage problem anymore and next year this [event] will be 50-50 men and women. In one step, if we say, ‘You’re safe here,’ we’ll get women to come into business aviation. It’s a good job anyway, but when it becomes the safe job, the one that allows them to be themselves, we’ve solved the pilot-mechanic shortage problem, or at least a good part of it.”
However, he added, “we can’t make progress if we won’t acknowledge that it exists. We need to rid ourselves of the people that can’t change. It’s gonna take everybody. Leaders have to make it clear that reporting will not result in any sort of retribution. Decisive action must be taken against perpetrators. Now you have to do it within the realms of HR and legal and all that stuff, but you can’t let these people continue to be around people that are preying on them.”
The hardest part of dealing with this issue is going to be reporting misbehavior, Kern explained. “There’s a lot of women in this audience, most of you are tough, you play pretty good defense, you’ve learned to get along in a male-dominated society, keep your head down, put your boundaries up, stop them before they get out of hand. You shouldn’t have to do that. You shouldn’t have to train and mentor women coming into this industry to play defense and to put up boundaries. That’s crap! So you have got to report, too. When you see it, you [must] stop it, too.
“Men have to become active allies, and we just can’t have any excuses. Now am I just setting a pipe dream out here? I hope not because I really truly believe this is one thing if what we do solves so many things.
“Do you want to move safety forward? Stop eliminating half the people in the population from active consideration for coming into our industry. Stop having it be seen as a male-dominated industry. Well, it is right now but it wouldn’t be if we were just nicer. It’s not that hard.”