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  • Shirley Phillips, DPT, Non-Profit Mentor

The Importance of Diversity in Decision Making

The first woman to fly on the space shuttle, Sally Ride, recalled in interviews that the male engineers planning her mission anticipated she would need a supply of one-hundred tampons on board for the week-long trip. As pilots we understand it’s easier to accept information that confirms that we are right, and to ignore things that point to our being mistaken. Still, it takes a special kind of comfort with self-aggrandizing behavior to think as a male engineer you know more about female physiology than a female astronaut with a doctorate in physics from Stanford.

Imagine being Sally Ride and knowing that those same engineers were also the ones who designed the suit that was supposed to keep her alive in space. It must have taken added courage for Ride to trust the judgment of these men who had previously been opposed to allowing women like her to go into space in the first place. It’s reasonable to think she might have questioned the soundness of some of their other decisions.

Sadly, we now know that the space shuttle Challenger that took Ride into space exploded shortly after liftoff because of the poor decisions made by some high-ranking personnel at NASA. Ride was appointed to the committees that investigated both the Challenger and Discovery disasters. It’s hard to imagine a better person for this task given her experiences.

The more I have learned about decision making in high-risk environments, the more convinced I am that if aspiring astronauts like Wally Funk had been selected by NASA from the beginning, the Challenger disaster might have been averted. That’s because if Ride had followed a long list of female astronauts instead of being the first, by the time of the Challenger disaster Funk might have been one of those making the launch decision that day. I say this not because of some special wisdom that Funk might have possessed (although that would not have surprised me either), but because if Funk had been one of those in charge, it would have also meant that NASA had learned the value of diversity in their astronaut pool and their leadership. We know when it comes to collaborative decision making, even small teams benefit from having members with different talents and experiences.

That’s one of the many reasons why aviation continues to need to attract, hire, and retain a diverse pool of pilots. Even at NASA, no one can be an expert on everything. Even Wilbur Wright admitted to telling his brother Orville in 1901 that man would not fly for another fifty years.

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