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Piloting towards psychological safety

Bias is a safety issue. Kimberly Perkins, one of the few women pilots in the world, is using her doctoral research to prioritize psychological safety within the airline industry.

When people think about safety on airplanes, they’re probably thinking about oxygen masks, pilot training, or airport security. What they’re probably not thinking of, is bias.

But that’s what doctoral student Kimberly Perkins wants people to be thinking about. Perkins has seen how cognitive biases impact safety on airplanes, and she wants the industry to pay just as much attention to this as it does to other safety protocols.

Perkins has spent 20 years as a professional pilot, working across six continents. She is also one of the 5 percent of pilots in the world who are women, and the less than 2 percent in North America who are captains, numbers that have barely budged despite decades of work to diversify the industry. That’s why Perkins believes that the industry needs a systems change.

“Systems are designed to get predictable results,” Perkins said. “These dismal statistics haven’t budged in decades, so the system is working: it’s getting predictable results. If we want diversity in aviation, we need to fix this mis-engineered system.”

Biases have a lot to do with creating this system, Perkins argues. There are subtle cues that women don’t belong, from hearing exclusively male pronouns to refer to pilots, to the posters in school that show men as captains and women as flight attendants, to the uniforms designed specifically for men.

And then there are not so subtle cues: Receiving a comment that she was only hired as a token for her gender. Asking to be trained to fly a different type of aircraft, but being told by a director that he didn’t want to waste money on “some mommy.” Hearing the sexist questions people ask her: “How can you be both a pilot and a mom?” It’s a question they never ask her husband, who is also a pilot.

"Biases, implicit and explicit, impact culture, and that’s a safety issue."

“I have experienced and observed bias and sometimes discrimination in this very male-dominated industry, and I felt like I wasn’t alone in experiencing these things.“ Perkins said. “Biases, implicit and explicit, impact culture, and that’s a safety issue.”

There’s a moral argument against bias, and there’s a better business argument against bias. Perkins had tried changing the industry using these arguments, by writing articles about diversity, equity, and inclusion, meeting with flight directors, and conducting her own research. But these arguments haven’t been enough to change the airline industry, and have sometimes returned vicious responses.

But Perkins knew there was one factor that could make drastic changes in aviation, and that was safety.

Throughout the airline industry’s history, several safety systems have been developed to prevent accidents. Crew Resource Management was developed in the 1970s to target a toxic culture where captains dismissed concerns from their staff. The system made it standard for everyone to speak up. Safety Management Systems were developed to create a culture where everyone in the crew felt valued and respected.

But Perkins argues that these don’t go far enough, because they don’t give specific tools for how to do this, and assume that all crew members feel psychologically safe to speak up.

Even before she thought about attending graduate school, Perkins started conducting research of her peers to see how bias was affecting their ability to safely fly planes, and found many did not have psychological safety.

One woman shared with Perkins that as she and her co-pilot were striking up a conversation during cruise flight, the woman mentioned that she was married to a woman. Her co-pilot, who was a man, went silent, crossed his arms, stared out the window, and then stood up and left without first following safety procedures to hand control of the plane over to her. After that encounter, the woman said she felt like she was walking on eggshells, making communication between her and her co-pilot less effective, and negatively impacting safety.

Perkins believes that low psychological safety and culture are important safety concerns to all genders, races, and ethnicities. She advocates that diversity will increase safety — but the current diversifying strategy in the industry isn’t working. In fact, it’s having negative repercussions.

Kimberly with her daughters Addison and Chloe

A male director of a flight department told Perkins that he felt white guys were under attack because of diversity, equity, and inclusion work. Perkins then asked him if he felt like he was walking on eggshells. “Absolutely,” he said. She asked if he felt like he had to conform to fit in. “Yes,” he responded, “It’s horrible”. “I know,” Perkins told him. “That’s how many of the women and people of color in the industry are feeling. That’s what’s called low psychological safety.”

“This is not a binary us versus them,” Perkins said. “It’s about creating a culture where I might not agree with something you’re saying but I can approach that with empathy and curiosity. How do we use that type of language and that type of culture to enhance safety?”

Airlines are also interested in doing this research. Perkins will be working with several airlines and aircraft manufacturers to study the psychological safety of crew members and come up with ways to mitigate bias and improve safety culture. It’s an approach that combines many different fields, from communication to engineering to psychology, which is why she is working with faculty from the College of Engineering, College of Arts and Sciences, and the Evans School of Public Policy & Governance.

“I feel proud and honored to have made it up the proverbial ladder,” Perkins said. “Now it’s my responsibility to give back to the industry, to leave it better than I found it.”

Perkins has also given back by launching her own non-profit, Aviation for Humanity, which uses airlines and the general public to donate school supplies to children around the world.

Perkins first became interested in aviation as a kid, when she’d board a plane alone to fly from Oregon to New Hampshire on visits between parents. She’d pull out a Popular Science magazine and some headphones and listen to air traffic control.

But it wasn’t until she was touring Daniel Webster College for undergrad that she considered becoming a pilot. The student tour guide mentioned that the school had a good aeronautics program. When Perkins expressed curiosity about it, the student quickly said that it was too competitive and she wouldn’t last, even if she got in. “That sounds perfect,” she said.

In school, Perkins tried to fit in — conformity that she regrets now — by drinking beers with her mostly male peers and dressing more masculine so she could look like her classmates.

But falling in love with flying was bias-free. The airplane didn’t care who was flying it. Taking off for the first time alone in the cockpit was magical for Perkins, as she learned flying was a combination of art and science. Sure, she had memorized how to operate the controls, but there were no rules for how the winds or weather would find her, and she had to be one with the machine to navigate them.

Perkins doesn’t want anyone to have to fit in to fall in love with flying like she did. She thinks of her two daughters, ages 9 and 5, who are big motivators for her to create change.

And she sees how the work of changing biases in herself and others is already working with her kids. On a recent visit to a store to get school supplies for her non-profit organization, she was flipping through a colouring book that showed different occupations. The pilots were only presented as men. Perkins sighed and showed the picture to her husband, lamenting yet again at the subtle cues that dissuaded women from this career.

Her daughter, raised in a household where women pilots were the norm, looked up, surprised at her own mother’s bias. “Mommy,” she said, “boys can be pilots, too.”

About the author

Kate Stringer is a writer at the University of Washington Graduate School, covering the innovative ways graduate students are impacting their communities through research, leadership, and public service.

*All photos provided by Kimberly Perkins and Kate Stringer


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