Here's an amazing statistic -- it's well known that today, women make up only about 6 percent of the total U.S. pilot population, but the amazing part is that back in 1935, there were about 800 women flying, and that was also about 6 percent of all pilots. At least that is what I've heard -- I couldn't find sources to verify that percentage, but it seems likely in the ball park. (For those who are interested, click here for the FAA's data, which goes back to 1999.)
So my question is, why, after all these years, when women have been involved in aviation since the get-go, why are they still so scarce? In my lifetime I've seen women make substantial inroads in other careers that were once considered male dominions -- law and medicine, for example. So what is it about aviation that is failing to appeal to women?
I put this question to a random assortment of people a few weeks ago at the AOPA Aviation Summit in Tampa, and I was surprised at some of the responses.
One woman I spoke with told me that young women aren't interested in careers that keep them away from home because they have "domestic nesting instincts." She said this in kind of a joking way but I still found it kind of disturbing. My own theory is that women who look at the airline track feel they have to make a choice between having a family and committing to such a demanding career -- while men don't feel they have to make that choice.
Then again, airline careers are becoming less attractive anyway, given all the financial problems at the majors and the years of sub-poverty-level pay to build time. I'm not sure that explains the low numbers of women pilots overall, since most pilots are not airline pilots, anyhow.
One person suggested that if more women aren't pilots, it must be only because they don't want to be. "I can't imagine that you would need to go out and tell a 10-year-old girl that she can be a pilot if she wants," he said. "I would think they already know that." How could they not know that? I'm not sure how, but it seems that they don't.
A few organizations have a long history of working to make sure that girls know that, but two people told me they don't like the idea of pilot organizations strictly for women. One said that since women have equal rights in our society there is no need for it, any more than there is a need for an organization of Italian-American pilots or any other subgroup of pilot.
My response to that was that there have always been social networks among newcomers in a society to provide mutual support, even if they weren't so formally organized as they are today. The fact that there are so still so few women in aviation seems to me to be reason enough to maintain this kind of support structure for now.
Another person said that such groups actually hold women back. "When women get together, there's just a lot of whining," she said. "If you want to get ahead in a man's world, the way to do that is to just get out there and do it."
Well, I'm not sure how to respond to that. I agree that whining is counter-productive. Then again, if these groups are providing mentors and scholarships and encouragement, maybe that's not so bad.
I suspect that there may be mutliple factors at work in keeping women out of the aviation world, but here are a few that make sense to me. One is that somewhere around middle school, girls seem to get the message that math, science, and technology is for boys and not for them, even though they have the ability. There is a lot of effort in schools now to try to overcome this, and maybe in a few more generations this barrier will simply go extinct, just a little slower than some of the other old ideas about the limits of women's capabilities.
Another factor is that most kids get their first experience with aviation outside of school anyway, and my guess is that since most pilots today are men, they are more likely to take a boy along to the airport than a girl. Yet another factor is that women in general still have less money than men, so even if they long to fly, they may not have the means.
Since there's a lot of angst over the diminishing numbers of private pilots, it seems we should be doing all we can to attract more people to flying. So here's what I would suggest. If you know a woman, or a girl, take her to the airport, show her how an airplane works, and tell her she can be a pilot if she wants to be, and if she is willing to work hard at it. She might already know that. But just in case she didn't, thanks to you, she knows now.