I was riveted by the lengthy obituary of Violet Cowden, one of an elite corps of women pilots who, during World War II, ferried planes from factories to airfields where they were urgently needed. She died at 94 on April 10 and left a lasting legacy of loyalty and patriotism – but also a lesson for companies today about how not to treat their employees.
According to The New York Times obituary, Vi and her fellow women pilots flew thousands of vital missions, freeing male pilots for combat missions. Attached to the Army Air Forces, these experienced and patriotic women were known as WASPS (Women Airforce Service Pilots). Vi was the subject of a documentary last year, “Wings of Silver: The Vi Cowden Story.”
They Paid Their Own Way
I was shocked to learn that “Because they were civil service employees and not military personnel, the WASPs had to pay for their own food, lodging and often capacious attire. There were no flight suits for women then, and Mrs. Cowden, barely more than 5 feet tall, was installed in a men’s Size 44 for the duration.” Vi worked seven days a week and “flew in all weather, came down on runways without lights and sometimes took the controls of planes so fresh from the factory that they had never been tested.”
As the war wound down, male pilots began returning to the U.S., and Vi, along with the brave women she served with, were summarily dumped as men took their places. Most of the women faded into obscurity.
Although 38 women lost their lives and many more were injured, they were not recognized for their service until many years later when President Carter signed a bill granting the WASPs recognition as veterans which allowed them to received limited benefits.
Finally, in March of 2010, The United States awarded the Congressional Gold Medal – the highest award that a civilian can receive from Congress – to nearly 300 women, including WASPs, all over the age of 86.
Here is Vi at 92 describing her war-time experience.
Fast Forward to Today
How are employees being treated today? Companies that are dumping employees because of a tough economy and aren’t nurturing the employees who are left will be sorry when things get better. As I’ve written before, employees will jump ship once the economy improves if they don’t feel valued.
That’s why employee engagement is so important. Listen to your employees. They have good ideas and want their company to succeed. Enlist them as brand advocates on social media. Let them have a voice in the company.
Don’t wait. Give them the tools they need to do a good job so they feel appreciated, unlike Violet Cowden and the fearless women she flew with.