Game changers: Australia's first female pilot for a major airline

Deborah Lawrie flying for Ansett, 1980 Source: Fairfax

How far would you go to get your dream job?

Growing up, Deborah Lawrie dreamed of becoming a mother. But after catching the “flying bug” on her first solo flight at 16-years-old, she had a new goal: to be a pilot.

Deborah’s father told her she would never get a job as a pilot, “because women don’t fly big aeroplanes around.” But she disagreed. “I just thought, well, that’s not going to stop me,” Lawrie tells Insight's Jenny Brockie, on this week's show.

What followed was a landmark case that would change the game not only for Lawrie, but for women in aviation across Australia.

In 1978, the Victorian government had only just enacted the Equal Opportunity Act. After being passed over several times for jobs with Ansett Airlines, Deborah took her complaint to the Commissioner. Her case became the first to be heard before the Equal Opportunity Board.

Deborah Lawrie, on Insight
Deborah Lawrie, on Insight

“I thought it would only last a day,” recounts Lawrie – she even bought a new outfit just for her day in court. Instead, Deborah was still fighting over a year later, with Ansett appealing every ruling until her case ended in the High Court.

Ansett came up with all sorts of reasons why women couldn’t fly commercial aircraft: They were not strong enough, would panic easy, were medically unfit once a month, and would have lots of children and not return to work. “I even wore some earrings to the interview that I did, and they were the loop ones that you put in, the sleepers. And this guy thought they were a permanent fixture and that these would impede my escape from an aircraft should I crash one, one day,” Lawrie says.   

Even after 19 months in court, and with Ansett arguing they would sack Lawrie as soon as possible if they were forced to hire her, Deborah didn’t back down. “I just wanted to fly,” she says. “That’s all it was ever about.”


Deborah’s determination made it possible for women to become pilots, and set a precedent for other sex discrimination cases. What does it take to change the game?| Insight: Game Changers - Catch up online now:

Source Insight