Friday, September 19, 2008

The Not-So-Female-Friendly Skies

I've been planning at some point to write a post about female pilots. I did a bunch of flying in the last few weeks, something I haven't done in a while. But for a period of time I traveled for business constantly and was on a plane 5 times a week. I've flown a few hundred times, all told, but I have NEVER had a female pilot. Not once. Not even a female co-pilot. It seems to always be that same deep male voice coming over the loudspeaker to tell us what the weather is like where we're landing.

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.


Habladora said...

Wow - a really interesting discussion of this. Too often you hear these type of statistics used to assert that women don't have good spatial abilities, or that we're 'not motivated.' You and the pilot you quote, however, point out a number of obstacles that might keep any female from the field, even those who are more skilled than their male peers. Thanks for a really interesting piece.

Maggie said...

Thanks. I'm lucky to have a friend with insight since I couldn't really find any elsewhere. :) She was awesome in helping me out.

Dee said...

Wow 6% IS pretty small. I wonder how they rank among space shuttle pilots.

I remember seeing one or two women powering home that baby. Would have loved to have heard their voices over the loudspeaker and they were the commanders too. Baddest girls in town!!.

Noticed said...

In sad news, a female pilot died today in a crash in South Carolina.

Thank you for your post. As a woman in a graduate program for future teachers I know what you mean about the gender gap in certain careers. I think the gap may be evening out a bit in higher ed, but the vast majority of secondary school teachers still appear to be female.

FeministGal said...

I too always wondered why the only women i saw in uniform at the airport were flight attendants. Thanks for thinking through and writing this post - it is important to bring these issues to light. I wonder how similar the "biggest, baddest dude in town" attitude is with commercial pilots, not air force? I bet there is still a sense of "this is the top of the top so it's reserved for men" feel to it. I've heard many talk this away as women don't want to pursue this field because it would involve a lot of time away from their families but thinking about this more i realize it's crap because there are so many female flight attendants who has just as rigorous schedules as the pilots and are away for just as long.

Maggie said...

I think getting into the industry is a notable problem, too. Here's a site with info on how to get a commercial license:

To get that much time logged is really expensive if you're doing it on your own. (One course I found to train to fly for regional airlines was more than $55,000.) The easiest ways to do it are in the military or as a flight instructor. Either way, I'm betting you get into that same male-dominated situation and potentially the same attitude. I think that may potentially put women off more than the actual career.

The SD 99s said...

The "Top 10 Barriers That Stop Women from Flying", a 2 year study that identified barriers stopping women from learning to fly by Dr. Penny Hamilton. She included 296 surveys or personal interviews of women pilots and student pilots, females who did not complete their flight training, and instructors of both genders to get her results.

They included these top reasons as to why women do not complete even their Private Pilot-
1) Cost
2) Incompatible CFI
3) Confidence issues
4) Went through multiple CFIs
5) Fearful

Personally, I believe the cost is by far and away the defining factor. These days it is not unusual for a Private to cost $8,000-10,000. Why don't more women take out loans like the men do to get it done? Maybe they aren't willing to invest that much if they plan on having kids as it is very tricky to fly and be a mom without the proper support/daycare at home. But that is a whole other study!

D. Norkus