How to Confront Sexism Gracefully and Forcefully

Every once in a while, a sexist stands up and blatantly shows off his insecurities. In doing so, he affirms the value and necessity of the work so many do to counter sexism in all its forms. A male military pilot friend shared a story about a sexist note left for a female airline captain. I will not showcase the actual note left by the male passenger -- you can see it for yourself at the story in the Ottawa Citizen here.

The timing is especially perfect since we just kicked off Women's History Month and we're in the middle of celebrating Women of Aviation Week Worldwide. The latter is a global and annual event when male and female licensed pilots provide free orientation rides to young girls and women to motivate them to pursue exciting careers in the highly technical aviation industry. All around the globe there are also career panels and other formats to provide information and showcase women aviators as role models.

That this insecure man chose this time to leave his sexist note for this woman airline pilot is simply poetic. I'm struck by his completely backwards expression of gender roles and pity him and his parents for having failed so miserably to prepare him for the 21st century world. I wondered what he would have been thinking if he'd seen the stories presented on Saturday at the San Francisco Historical Expo, in a presentation titled "Modern Military Women: History in the Making." In that content set, I showed military women achieving the ranks of two, three and four-star general in the Air Force, Army and Marines. The audience was treated to images and video of military women flying combat fighter jets, flying every type of aircraft, the first Thunderbird pilot who was born a woman and so much more. It was a tribute to the heights women are achieving now that combat exclusion has finally been officially lifted and women are serving everywhere. That's the reality and so we must continue to forcefully confront sexist attitudes as we encounter them.

It's a teaching moment for those of us who are mothers, of both little girls and little boys, to explain why sexist men do these things. Here's how Carey Smith Steacy responded via her Facebook page:

"To David in 12E on my flight #463 from Calgary to Victoria today. It was my pleasure flying you safely to your destination. Thank you for the note you discreetly left me on your seat. You made sure to ask the flight attendants before we left if I had enough hours to be the Captain so safety is important to you, too. I respectfully disagree with your opinion that the "cockpit" (we now call it the flight deck, as no cocks are required) is no place for a lady. In fact, there are no places that are not for ladies anymore. I have heard many comments from people throughout my 17 year career as a pilot. Most of them positive. Your note is, without a doubt, the funniest. It was a joke, right? RIGHT?? I thought, not. You were more than welcome to deplane when you heard I was a "fair lady." You have that right. Funny, we all, us humans, have the same rights in this great free country of ours. Now, back to my most important role, being a mother."

What a terrific, graceful, humorous yet forceful response to sexism! Brilliant really.

What I told my children this morning and also shared on Facebook is this: "There are men in this world who are directly threatened by the truth: that women can actually do everything professionally that they can do, PLUS things that those men cannot do, like fly airplanes. I told them so they'll be able to recognize sexism for exactly what it is, and be ready to call it out for the sheer insecurity the person is showcasing of THEMSELVES."

I also have emphasized that this mentality is part of human nature and will not disappear any time soon. The best thing is to recognize it, not ignore it and confront it gracefully. I believe the best way to do that is by pushing forward to accomplish your personal goals in spite of these backward-looking opinions. And there's one more thing we can do... apply an effective anecdote.

What is the anecdote to this type of sexism? I offer the following as one effective example.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, I am teamed up with a private pilot named Ana Uribe-Ruiz who owns her own airplane with her husband Daniel Ruiz. Ana is the local coordinator for Women of Aviation Week worldwide. As part of WOAW, we are on a mission to expose MANY more girls to aviation careers. This year we're making in an especially big push to reach girls from the Latino community. On Monday this week, 22 girls from the traditionally-underserved school district of Ravenswood in East Palo Alto got their first flights in an airplane, ever. That several of them were allowed to take momentary control of the plane and execute turns while sitting next to their instructor pilot a thousand feet above the bay was a hugely empowering moment for them. It was a moment that no doubt sparked dreams of bright futures ahead, filled with endless possibilities of careers never before considered.

The event was reported in the evening news as seen here. We're doing it all again on Friday, and during the entire weekend. Ana and her volunteer pilots flew 220 girls last year; they're planning on exceeding that number this year.

The anecdote to sexism in this case is this: greatly multiply the number of women who will fly in the future. We will inspire, motivate and guide many more girls and young women into the flight deck (or cockpit you prefer that word.) As a military veteran who served for almost a decade in the cockpit of the military airplane as a KC-135 navigator then as an instructor, nothing is a better anecdote to those who still oppose the idea of women flying airplanes then to increase the number of those doing it!

The WOAW posted the following on their Facebook page: "Our response is in progress... thousands are introducing girls to flying. They, in turn, will become airline pilots, aeronautical engineers, air traffic controllers, aircraft mechanics. Relying on their excellent skills will become the norm and voices such as the one stated in the article will become more and more irrelevant."

EXACTLY. That is indeed the most graceful and forceful way to counter sexism -- by creating even greater opportunities for our girls to do whatever it is they choose to do.