female pilots

Where Are All the Female Pilots?

On the whole, women across the world have less opportunity for travel than men. We make less money, have fewer personal freedoms, and are more often in caregiver roles that don’t allow as much time or energy for travel.

This same relative lack of opportunity also often extends to travel professions, which is disheartening when adventurous women are looking for viable avenues to pursue lifelong wanderlust.

Take, for instance, the demanding, yet well-paid, position of commercial airline pilot. Even if you are a seasoned airline traveler, there’s a good chance you’ve never flown in a plane piloted by a woman.

female pilots
Image courtesy of Flickr user Simon Turkas.

According to a 2015 BBC article, only 3% of commercial pilots in the entire world are female; about 4,000 out of 130,000. A slightly different count from the Gender Gap Grader, drawing on information from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, puts the percentage slightly higher, at about 5%.

Either way, the numbers do not paint a pretty picture.

They get even more dismal when you look at the position of airline captain — aka the airline pilot who supervises all other crew members on a given flight. According to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots, there are only about 450 women worldwide who work as airline captains.

Yes, the glass ceiling even exists in the clouds.

A history of gender discrimination for female pilots.

As you may already suspect, this workplace gender discrepancy within aviation has a long and depressing history.

The first female airline pilot in the United States was Helen Richey, who was hired by Central Airlines in 1934. At the time, newspapers declared Richey’s appointment as “the dawn of women coming of age.”

This was not only condescending but turned out to be totally premature in relation to commercial aviation. Asked to take pictures and sign postcards rather than fly planes, it quickly became apparent to Richey that she was seen more as a public relations opportunity than a pilot.

female pilots
Helen Richey, the United States’ first commercial female airline pilot. Image from San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive via Flickr user SDASM Archives.

When the all-male pilots’ union refused to accept her into its ranks and U.S. regulations mandated that female airline pilots only be allowed to fly under “fair weather” conditions, she resigned. This was after only 10 months on the job and despite being a badass pilot who once climbed onto her plane’s damaged wing while in flight to repair it. She was manned only with a needle, thread, and her womanly intuition. (It was telling her to hold on tight.)

The outlook for female airline pilots hasn’t gotten much more promising since Richey’s brief foray into the field 80 years ago. According to Women of Aviation, though some progress was made in the number of female airline pilots between 1960 and 1980, the numbers have remained at a statistical standstill in the last three-and-a-half decades.

Currently, in the United States and Canada, women make up about 5% of the 53,000 members of the Air Line Pilots Association. (This is compared to roughly 84% of flight attendants being female in the U.S.)

The numbers get even worse when you look at female airline pilots of color. According to a 2015 Telegraph article, there are only 675 black pilots in the U.S., and only 14 of them are women.

female pilots
Captain Patricia Yapp Syau Yin, the world’’s first female MiG-29 pilot. Image courtesy of Flickr user Aviatrix Aviatrix.

Why have we made so little progress?

So, what gives? Why has there been so little gender progression in the field of airline pilots? (You know, besides the overarching factors that are institutional sexism and misogyny.)

Money is an issue.

For one, the training that becoming a commercial airline pilot requires is very expensive — estimates range from $100,000 to $150,000. One of the cheapest ways to become trained (at least in the United States) is through military service, which is not always the nicest place to be if you are a woman.

Women weren’t allowed to fly in aircraft combat in the United States military until 1993 and currently make up only 5% of the more than 14,000 pilots in the U.S. Air Force, according to the Air Force Personnel Center.

female pilots
A female Navy pilot poses in the cockpit of a C-2A Greyhound aircraft. Image from Flickr user Expert Infantry.

Perception matters.

Perception and lack of media representation is also an issue. British Airways recently conducted a study in an effort to determine why more women aren’t becoming airline pilots. Its findings imply that at least part of the problem is a lack of female airline pilot role models. Twenty percent of those questioned said that, while growing up, they only saw men as pilots in TV and film and thought that women could only be part of the flight crew.

It doesn’t help that, occasionally, passengers literally refuse to fly on planes piloted by women, as was the case with this IndiGo flight in 2011. Or they’re just loudly sexist towards their female pilots, as was the case with this Brazilian airline flight in 2012. Ugh.

Here, have some female pilot role models…

If lack of sufficient role models really is an impediment, let me be the first to give you some (more) examples.

female pilots
Image courtesy of Flickr user simpleinsomnia.

There’s Patrice Clarke Washington, the first black woman to become a U.S. flight captain (in 1995). Born and raised in the Bahamas, Washington decided she wanted to become a pilot when she was still in high school. Washington said in an Organization of Black Airline Pilots newsletter:

I first became interested in aviation while participating in career week activities at my high school in Nassau, Bahamas. My first thought was to become a flight attendant. Then I decided I wanted to fly planes. When I told my friends that I wanted to become a pilot, they laughed at me. But my mother taught me that there was no limit to what I could become.

There’s Esther Mbabazi, the first female airline pilot in Rwanda. Flying has been her dream since she was little, despite losing her dad in a plane crash when she was just eight. On her flights across Africa, Mbabazi doesn’t make announcements because it scares the passengers. Yes, this is a thing — some passengers have refused to board Mbabazi’s flights because there is a woman in the pilot’s seat.

Mbabazi told the BBC:

And then you have to explain to them that flying does not really require you to carry the whole aircraft.

There’s Niloofar Rahmani, who, in 2012, became Afghanistan’s first female fixed-wing pilot and the first woman to be trained as an Afghan Air Force pilot in more than 30 years. (Rahmani wanted to be a commercial airline pilot, but Afghanistan doesn’t have civil aviation.) Rahmani continues to pursue her dreams of working as a pilot despite death threats from the Taliban and members of her extended family. She is currently spending two years training in the U.S.

Rahmani told Al Jazeera in 2015:

I want men to know I have not been scared of them. I just smile to them and pretend there is nothing wrong in my life. I want them to know that other females are coming.

Have you ever had a female airline pilot? Why do you think women are being integrated so slowly into the world of commercial airline pilots? Sound off in the comments below!

Featured image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force via Flickr.

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