Second Look: Why So Few Women in the Cockpit?


Our blog earlier this week about the UK’s easyJet’s plan to hire more women pilots ignited plenty of comments.I couldn’t help but think that anyone who wants to see women make up more than 12 percent of the pilot population — even more than 30 percent — must accept the idea that targeted hiring and other structured programs will do little to change the social norms that have been around for so long. At least for the short term.

EasyJet’s plan to “highlight the opportunities of pilot careers to young, female audiences” is fine. Exposure is a good thing, and many a potential pilot (male or female) never had that at the opportune time in his or her life. If other companies look over and see easyJet with twice the hiring pool it had before, that’s great. Perhaps they’ll follow suit. But in the end, the airline will find that even 12 percent isn’t a big gain, much less a significant impact on the overall makeup of professional pilots.

Whether you think it’s a problem in the first place to have a large gender gap in aviation is just one debate in a complex issue. From a business standpoint, there are hundreds of thousands of potential employees and customers of aviation who, as of now, don’t count. In any business, that’s what matters. This is particularly true in the small-volume niche of general aviation. There are myriad reasons for women making up 6 to 16 percent (depending where you check) of our pilots, airline or GA. Most reasons have nothing to do with aviation directly. It’s a deep-seated, often subtle social practice of dividing the genders into certain categories, certain roles, and assuming certain things. These are rarely addressed at a conscious level and are not part of any deliberate motivation to keep men or women from pursuing things they’re interested in.

It’s just taken for granted that young females are mostly not interested in things like learning to fly, or building airplanes, or playing with toy bulldozers, for that matter. And so they follow the paths already taken and most go into careers where there are plenty of women and men alike (more on this later). Hence the lack of exposure. And vice versa, too. There’s also that raging debate you hear about gender brain wiring and why men think like this and women do that, and that’s why girls don’t play with bulldozers. But to me, that’s beside the point. If companies like easyJet see better business in permanently boosting their candidate ranks to include thousands more women who can do those jobs as well as men, they must commit to the long term, taking part in a cultural shift that could take decades to see through.

Here’s a generic example of what I mean by culture. When Susan is in high school and somewhere along the line gets interested in this cool thing called flying, it’s only natural that the males and females around her are a little surprised, even if they’re supportive. But the result is that she will, to varying degrees, stick out a little for going outside an assumed path in life, for doing something considered “different” for her gender. It’s understandable and it can even be positive, because a lot of people who learn Susan wants to be an airline pilot will say things like, “Wow, that’s awesome! Good for you!” That’s all great stuff for a young person to hear, but not all Susans like to stick out.

Then what happens? One of two things: She’s either fine with all that and finds support where she needs it and simply pursues her goals, or she doesn’t. Why doesn’t she? Depends on the Susan. Going against those subtle societal assumptions in the first place isn’t always easy. Many women aren’t comfortable sticking out. They need to see a path that has been taken before, sometimes many times, sometimes by someone they know. This provides real examples of the possibilities. When it comes to endeavors in life, most women have a powerful need to continue to draw their motivation and encouragement from other women, whether they’re learning to fly, getting a college degree or whatever. So even if Susan gets some exposure with other young women to the possibilities that interest her, that might not be enough.

If she is the only student in a ground school, or the only female on the ramp on most days, chances are she won’t feel like she’s getting the maximum enjoyment out of that experience. This isn’t to say that men don’t have that need as well, but that’s another story. And we all know what happens when a student doesn’t enjoy going to flight school. It’s likely she will drop out. And so the tiny numbers continue; it’s really just a cycle. When women are commonly seen in cockpits and other facets of aviation, the cycle will break, as will the underlying assumptions that lead many women to never even consider these things.

I hear a lot about the obstacles women face when entering aviation. The cycle of women not finding many other women in such jobs is really the main obstacle, and in some cases a woman sees no such barrier. We’ve seen examples of that. Then there are the barriers that come from women themselves. Again, nobody’s deliberately against the idea of women flying or teaching others to fly, but it just bumps into certain assumptions society has held since forever. Back to Susan. Daughters who express interest in something like aviation are seen as going against the grain, breaking the gender line, leaving their parents sometimes at a loss. Their mothers, who are often the biggest role model in their lives, have no exposure to such things themselves, and so have no experience to draw on for guidance.

If you think we’re completely past these social assumptions that women don’t fly, we’re not. Several years ago, when giving airplane rides at an annual fly-in, two women got into the back seat of the Piper I was flying. One of them remarked to her companion, “look, our pilot’s a girl!” Not a big deal most of the time, but I still turn heads. I recently read a narrative from an elementary school teacher who, while exposing her class to aerospace subjects, heard one young lady say, “but girls can’t fly.” Once in a while, I see these things happen, which reminds me that culture is slow to change.

But I believe such barriers are based on the individual and culture doesn’t have to make them so unmovable. I’m aware that many see a more negative obstacle, that aviation is a chauvinist, man-club environment. Of course there are examples of the worst in people, but I for one have never seen those to be the norm. A room full of men is not, in and of itself, a chauvinist environment. However, I can’t dismiss the fact that this is what some perceive. I believe that this obstacle could evaporate if more women could see what I see. I’d like them to know that they can draw inspiration and energy from simply being a woman in aviation, regardless of who’s in the room or in the cockpit next to them. I’ve found that the men who surround me in this field are the most supportive, the most motivating, and the least surprised to see women as their peers, students, and mentors. This is the culture I want to see more of. Perhaps we could pay more attention to that.

Elaine Kauh is an active CFII and an AVweb staff editor.