b. 1953

On 22 January 1980, Deborah Lawrie (then Wardley) made history. She flew as the co-pilot of an Ansett flight from Alice Springs to Darwin, making her Australia’s first female commercial airline pilot. This event marked the culmination of a protracted battle through the courts and the first successful sex discrimination case against an employer in Australia.

Deborah learnt to fly when she was 16 and earned her private and commercial licences before applying for a pilot position with Ansett. In 1978, after having been rejected for two years, she took Ansett to the newly formed Victorian Equal Opportunity Commission over its refusal to employ her as a pilot on the grounds of her gender. Ansett lost but appealed the case all the way to the High Court.

Under a successful ‘girlcott’, women urged businesses to transfer their travel accounts to TAA (Trans Australia Airlines), Ansett losing more than 50 per cent of its business travel as a result. When Ansett was forced to employ Deborah, the company attempted to sack her by claiming she had caused a near-miss at Moorabbin Airport, despite an inquiry exonerating her. Ansett relented when unions took on her cause, but it wasn’t until Rupert Murdoch and Peter Abeles took over the company that Deborah got her wings.

Deborah was one of 1,640 pilots who resigned en masse following the 1989 Australian pilots’ dispute. She went on to pilot for KLM in the Netherlands and now flies for Tigerair Australia, which currently employs the highest proportion of female pilots in the country.

Deborah was inducted onto the Victorian Honour Roll of Women in 2001. She has been made a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and a Master Air Pilot.