The real reason there are so few female pilots — and what airlines should do about it

Mar 8, 2020

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Seeing a woman at the controls of an aircraft is nothing new.

Raymonde de Laroche became the world’s first licensed female pilot 110 years ago on March 8, 1910, and a raft of aviators followed.

Yet in 2020 a mere 5% of pilots are women, and a tiny 1.42% of all captains are female, according to statistics from the International Society of Women Airline Pilots. The total number of women captains in Europe wouldn’t even fill a Boeing 747. Airlines are making a concerted effort to encourage women into the cockpit, so why isn’t the needle moving?

It’s certainly not because of ability or strength. Women, for example, played a pivotal flying role during World War Two. The Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPS, ferried and tested military aircraft, and initially, the commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Force, Henry “Hap” Arnold, was unsure “whether a slip of a girl could fight the controls of a B-17 in heavy weather.” He changed his mind: “Now in 1944, it is on the record that women can fly as well as men.”

But General Arnold’s words did not help. At the dawn of the jet age, the perceived role of women was in the home. Airlines did not accept female pilots.

It was as if the kudos gained by women flyers during the war had been long forgotten.

Back in the 1960s, Bonnie Tiburzi longed to fly for a commercial airline. “I wrote to every single airline on the planet,” she told the BBC World Service’s “Witness History” podcast. One even replied, “We will never hire a woman so please don’t write us again.” Finally, in 1973, Tiburzi was offered a job with American Airlines as the company’s first-ever female pilot. She didn’t face much opposition from her male counterparts, but did receive a letter from the wife of a pilot accusing her of taking a job away from a man who needed money to feed his family.

The vast majority of airlines now encourage women into the flight deck, and with an estimated 804,000 pilots needed to meet demand by 2038, it’s in their best interest too.

If airlines truly want to get female pilot percentages into double digits, they need to address the real barriers preventing women from taking a seat in the cockpit.

Capturing the imagination of children at a young age is critical, as is engaging both boys and girls in STEM subjects. Some airlines have realized this and are putting their female pilots out there as visible role models. Qantas Captain Helen Trenerry operated the Project Sunrise flight nonstop from London to Sydney, a flight that gained global attention. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” said Trenerry, who has flown with Qantas for 31 years. “Rather than talking about it, we put the picture out there.”

Captain Helen Trenerry preparing for the 2019 Project Sunrise flight from London to Sydney
Captain Helen Trenerry preparing for the 2019 Project Sunrise flight from London to Sydney (Photo courtesy of Qantas)

Out of the US legacy carriers, United Airlines has the highest number of female pilots at 7.40% Its pilots are getting in front of children in the classroom to inspire their imagination from an early stage. The airline is “engaging girls around the world as they begin to think about their own futures, so [they] can ensure a strong future of women in the industry,” said Human Resources and Labor Relations Executive Vice President Kate Gebo.

Social media is helping too with a global generation of digital natives able to see inside the life of women flying airplanes, such as Eva Claire Marseille (@Flywitheva), who takes her 153,000 followers with her as she flies a Boeing 747 around the world.

But there’s a very real and often unmentioned dimension of being a woman that can lead women to believe that becoming a pilot might not complement other life plans, namely having children.

Can being a pilot and a mother successfully coexist?

You could argue that scores of flight attendants manage it, although the career of a pilot is very different. Both roles are essential to ensuring the safety and well-being of passengers, but pilots have a longer, tougher path to being hired and staying employed by an airline. They undergo training and examining throughout their career, including intensive flight simulator sessions and annual line checks. It’s a vocation.

If airlines are serious about increasing the number of female pilots, their flexible working policies need to meet the needs of women. Virgin Atlantic senior first officer Adelle Roberts flies long haul and works a 75% roster, which works perfectly for her, “It is possible to be a pilot and a mum. I’m doing it and I can honestly say that in my entire career I’ve never had such an amazing work-life balance.” (These flexible working patterns give male pilots the option to spend more time at home with their families, too.)

EasyJet has made huge headway and says it is on track with its goal for 20% of all newly hired pilots to be women by 2020. But to find the highest percentage of female pilots, you will have to leave Europe — in India, the world leader in women pilots, with 12%. That’s double the U.S. rate, for example. Part of the reason is the burgeoning growth of commercial aviation in India, and part is the lack of gender disparity in pay thanks to union mandates, unlike in other industries in India.

Training organizations are getting in on the act too, and taking an active stance in addressing the underrepresentation of women in aviation. The CAE Women in Flight scholarship program offers fully funded training for a select number of recipients. CAE is the Canada-based maker of the full-motion flight simulators airlines use to train pilots, and it’s partnering with airlines to train future women pilots.

One of the first recipients is Alicia Hunt, who gained a coveted place with the American Airlines Cadet Academy. She’ll have the chance to become a first officer at one of American’s regional airlines, the typical first step in a career with the majors. Southwest Airlines has also partnered with CAE and kicked off the 2020 Women in Flight intake offering one woman the opportunity to join its cadet program.

Airlines are making headway, but recruitment drives won’t be enough to boost the number of women flying aircraft. It will take a multi-pronged approach. Altering perception, showcasing positive role models in the media, and showing girls at an early age that becoming a pilot is a viable career choice are all key. So is communicating clear career paths that show women they can be pilots and mothers — or anything else — without compromising either role.

After all, as General Arnold had realized back in 1944, pilot skill is not about gender, but hard work. EasyJet Captain Iris de Kan knows it firsthand. “Very few people are God’s gift to flying,” she said, “and have to work hard to get their wings.”

Featured photo: EasyJet captain Iris de Kan (Courtesy of EasyJet) 

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