Women in aviation: The hard facts

Editor’s note: Lola Reid Allin is a writer, photographer, adventurer and commercial pilot based in Belleville, Ont. This is part 2 of a 5-part series by Lola about the under-representation of women in commercial aviation. Read part 1 here.

In 1960, one in 21,417 licensed pilots in America was female. By 1980, the ratio had become one in 4,224 (0.023 per cent). Unfortunately, this was a zenith that decreased to one in 5,623 (0.017 per cent) by 2010. In these five decades, most of the female pilot population growth occurred between 1960 and 1980, influenced by a burgeoning feminist message. In those two decades, for-hire commercial pilot (CPL) and airline transport pilot (ATP) certificates held by women exploded from 763 to 4,473, an increase of 486 per cent.

ISWAP data updated to January 2020 indicates 185,143 total airline pilots; of these, 9,746 are women (5.26 per cent) and 2,630 are captains (1.42 per cent). Eric Dumigan Photo
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Despite the existence of some influential women in aviation, the majority of women do not consider aviation as a viable career. The misconception that pilots are brilliant scientists or mathematicians persists. Cornell University professor Shelley J. Correll’s study, “Constraints into preferences: gender, status, and emerging career aspirations,” American Sociological Review (Vol. 69, 2004), evaluated the “constraining effect of cultural beliefs about gender on the emerging career-relevant aspirations of men and women.” Data from the study supported her hypothesis that career selection is influenced by the perceived ability to succeed on the job. Her findings partially explain why only 11 per cent of student pilots in 2004 were female.

Following the dramatic increase between 1960 and 1980, the number of women in American aviation has barely increased. Between 1980 and 2010 the total number of women with any type of aviation license increased from 26,896 to 27,451, a small gain of 2.06 per cent. This impasse is rendered increasingly dismal if compared to women’s success in other non-traditional aviation-related occupations. Many non-aviation industries have made significant efforts to attract female customers. Within the transportation industry, Harley-Davidson devised campaigns targeting women specifically.

Automobile manufacturers re-designed interiors to be ergonomically appropriate for typically smaller-framed female drivers. Cushions like those needed by diminutive drivers have long bit the dust for women who want to control a motorbike, a car, or a semi-trailer, but designers of light training aircraft have not embraced these modifications.

Further, although 12 per cent of student pilots are female, a mere 5.35 per cent become commercially licensed (commercial license: 6.33 per cent; airline transport: 4.36 per cent). Of those women who have spent thousands of dollars and flown at least 200 hours to achieve a commercial license, few of the 5.35 per cent of female pilots seek employment or remain employed as charter, corporate, or airline pilots, or as instructors. When Captain Judy Cameron disembarked from the Boeing 777 after her last flight with Air Canada in 2015, 160 of Air Canada’s approximately 3,100 pilots were female, or 5.1 per cent — a figure close to the North American average for airlines.

A report by the FAA’s Aeronautical Centre dated Dec. 31, 2016, indicated that 5.10 per cent of commercially licensed (CPL or ATP) pilots were female (12,969 females compared to 253,975 males). Though more than 3,200 women report their income source as a pilot or flight engineer (second officer), this impressive number shrivels to 4.3 per cent when compared to the 73,000 men employed as pilots or flight engineers.

A 2013 survey of 2,026 British men and women aged 18 or older commissioned by Worldpay Zinc UK, revealed ongoing prejudice against women in non-traditional occupations. Fifty per cent of men believed men were better suited to be a pilot, compared to four per cent of women who believe women make better pilots. Eight per cent of men and 11 per cent of women felt they would be unlikely to trust a female pilot. Five per cent indicated they would be worried if they knew a woman piloted the plane. Approximately three per cent stated they would get off the plane, change their flight, or complain.

Geraldine Wilson, managing director of WorldPay Zinc, concluded the survey suggested that while some people resist change, others are challenging and overcoming stereotypical preconceptions.

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In response to the WorldPay article, one of my colleagues wrote, “When I was furloughed [as a pilot with an American air carrier], I took a contract job [2009-2012] where the majority of my colleagues were British. Most of them (not all, but most) made it very clear to me that they found women in nontraditional roles unacceptable. Several of those men actually told me I should just get married so I could stop working. At first, I thought this was some odd style of British humour that I just wasn’t getting. Sadly it wasn’t.”

This pattern is replicated in other countries, including Canada. Air Transport Association of Canada (ATAC) reported similar statistics in its 2010 Human Resource Study of the Commercial Pilot in Canada. Of those commercial pilots participating in the survey, the Canadian civilian sector boasted 2,789 men, but only 137 women operating fixed-wing airplanes. Expressed as a percentage, women comprise 4.9 per cent of the total population of commercially employed airplane pilots in Canada.

The International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISWAP) published data current to December 2017 indicating a total of 59,149 people employed as pilots with 34 airlines around the world. Of these pilots, 3,004 are women (5.08 per cent) and of those women, 847 are captains. ISWAP data updated to January 2020 indicates 185,143 total airline pilots; of these, 9,746 are women (5.26 per cent) and 2,630 are captains (1.42 per cent).

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