In an age where there's a significant effort to even out the gender gap in nearly every possible industry, I have to wonder why pilots are so different. Salon's Ask the Pilot column addresses the issue, though not directly. According to him, in the mid-90's women made up 3% of "cockpit crew members." It's unclear whether this means only commercial pilots, those employed by airlines, or some larger group. But it's still an abysmally low number.
The same question was asked on All Experts and was answered by Dottie Norkus, a pilot and charter member of Women In Aviation International. She uses data from the FAA, but it's similarly vague. It shows women making up 6% of total pilots in 2006, though this includes everything from student pilots to commercial pilots. Norkus claims that part of the problem is that aviation is still considered a "male" career. That doesn't convince me, there are plenty of women in other careers considered dominantly male.
So I went to a final source, a dear old friend of mine who happens to be a military pilot. She cites a major issue as the large number of commercial pilots who come from military backgrounds. It's one of the few ways to get enough flying hours to fly commercially. Once you open that door, the forces pushing women away from flying in the military are numerous. My friend describes the male attitude towards women among top pilots this way:
They're fine so long as you're junior or less experienced. As soon as you become an equal, you're a threat and a problem. Fighter pilots are not your every day, average dudes. They're guys who love to be foul, practically live without female contact except for their wives (and that's for only part of every year), and they are continually pumped up about being the biggest, baddest, guy in town.
Another big factor isn't so much the outside pressure as the internal one. If you have any plans on getting pregnant, that'll get you out of the cockpit for your pregnancy. Afterwards you'll have to start your training over again. And, of course, there are the long deployments that would separate you from your child or family for months at a time.
Despite our progress in many job markets, there are still those with a pre-existing male preference, and aviation seems to be one of these. It's also arguable that any career path with these obstacles for women (such as the military) is going to take a long time to change, if they ever do. I admit, I do look forward to the time when my friend gets back into civilian life and we can have the kind of normal friendship that isn't really possible when she's deployed for months on end.