Sunday, May 27 , 2018, 6:19 pm | Fair 65º


Susan Estrich: The Woman Who Landed the Plane

For years, people such as myself have been arguing that gender discrimination doesn't just hurt women: It hurts all of us, our economy, our efficiency, and, yes, even our safety.

The stories about the obstacles that Tammie Jo Shults, the now-famous pilot of Southwest Flight 1380, faced in her quest to become a pilot are more than a testament to her tenacity. 

The obstacles she faced are not so different from the obstacles women continue to face in predominantly male occupations — whether as fighter pilots or firefighters. It's the old stereotypes about men being better at such things that have kept the doors shut and the ceiling far too low. 

Whenever I hear a woman's voice come through the plane intercom saying that she's the captain and giving our estimated landing time, I can't help but smile.

Sure, I'm happy to see women breaking glass ceilings and finding ways around concrete walls. But it's more than that. Women such as Tammie Jo Shults had to be better than the men they were working with, competing against, trying to prove themselves to, or they would not get command of the plane.

I feel safe with a woman up front. 

And what about the other women, those who might have been almost as (or just as) capable as Shults, but lacked her fortitude, or her determination, or maybe a bit of luck along the way?

When you eliminate 50 percent of the population, or close to it, from your pool — whether it is a pool of would-be pilots or engineers — or when 50 percent of the population, or close to it, believe they won't have a fair chance or won't be welcome, you don't get a better pool of applicants.

You get a smaller pool. You eliminate people who actually are more skilled, more adept, have more potential, than those who remain.

There is nothing about flying a plane that is inherently male, nothing about being a man that makes you better at the technical side, better in a crisis, better as the leader of the team.

Tammie Jo Shults, her co-pilot and the flight attendants who worked in that terrifying cabin prove what a difference a great team can make. And a woman was leading that team, commanding that plane, with the lives of the passengers and crew in her hands.

She did not panic. She was steely calm. 

Can we finally get rid of the stereotype that men are better at handling a crisis than women; better at making the life-and-death decisions; better at facing down the prospect of imminent death? 

Can we finally stop with the theories about how men's brains make them better scientists than women, better engineers than women, better drivers, better pilots and leaders?

Some men are better at such things than other men. And some women are better than any of the boys. Ability can only be measured individually.

When instead of treating individuals as individuals we judge then according to their sex — or their sexual orientation, or their race or religion or any other irrelevant and suspect classification — we lose great people, better people. 

Tammie Jo Shults reportedly concluded that she would have a much better chance of flying a plane if she joined the Navy as opposed to the Air Force. Obviously, it was the Air Force's loss. But what if the Navy had been no different?

How many amazing women doing amazing things will it take before we finally can say, "Wow, what an amazing pilot! And, oh yes, she happens to be a woman, but that's not surprising, because of course women are pilots — great pilots, great engineers."

Someday, when half the pilots and engineers and CEOs are women, it won't be surprising.

We have a long way to go. But thanks to the courage and skill and determination of one woman, we may be a little bit closer today.

Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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