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Gender imbalance and career opportunities for women in the aviation sector: Aviation Law and Bachelor of Aviation students

Charles Giacco, Lecturer, University of South Australia, Dr Matt Harvey, Senior Lecturer, Victoria University


Aviation is one of the highest regulated forms of human activity. Many areas of law constitute the aviation regulatory environment, encompassing public, private and international laws.

On 22 January 1980, Captain Deborah Lawrie AM (then Wardley) made history when she flew as the co-pilot of an Ansett Airlines flight from Alice Springs to Darwin, making her Australia’s first female pilot for a major airline. This event marked the culmination of a protracted two-year battle through the courts all the way to the High Court of Australia, and was the first successful sex discrimination case against an employer in Australia.

Although some four decades have transpired since the High Court of Australia decision in Ansett Transport Industries (Operations) Pty. Ltd. v. Wardley (1980) 142 CLR 237 (“Wardley”), and despite the pioneering efforts of Captain Lawrie, women continue to be underrepresented in tertiary aviation courses and in the aviation sector generally. Airline cabin crew staff have seen relatively better gender parity over the years than have their flight crew colleagues in the cockpit.

The gender composition of the High Court of Australia at the time of Wardley was solely male. For a brief period during 2022, there was a majority of female justices on the High Court of Australia bench, including the Court’s first ever female Chief Justice. In 2020, the first ever female CEO was appointed to Virgin Australia (the first since its formation in 2020 as Virgin Blue) and, in 2023, the first ever female CEO was appointed to Qantas (the first since its formation in 1920).

Whilst having regulatory measures and legal processes today that prohibit discrimination on the grounds of gender as had occurred in Wardley is unquestionably significant, attention still needs to be had in the learning experiences and employment opportunities for female aviation students and future aviation professionals.

Given the highly regulated nature of the aviation sector both domestically and internationally, there are mutual legal scholarship opportunities and enhanced student outcomes for both law and aviation students. This paper seeks to analyse these opportunities and outcomes in addressing the issues affecting gender parity for aspiring female aviation professionals. Furthermore, important and related issues of sustainability, internationalization in the aviation sector and measures to address such issues in aviation law education and scholarship will also be considered.