by Kreisha Ballantyne
A father and son are driving along the motorway when they have a head-on collision with another vehicle. The father is killed instantly. The son is rushed to hospital. In emergency, the surgeon looks at the patient and exclaims, ‘That’s my son!’ How can this be?
To those of you who deduced that the surgeon was the boy’s mother, bravo! In the 15 years I’ve been throwing this riddle on unsuspecting targets, only three have answered correctly immediately. All those who have struggled with the answer have kicked themselves when the mother is revealed as the surgeon.
It’s 2019, and gender bias is still alive and kicking. If you’re struggling to believe me, please take a look at this video, compiled only two years ago.
Only a few years ago, when I was training for my CPL and in my pilot’s uniform, I was asked by a barista if I was a strip-a-gram! When I told him I was a pilot, he answered, ‘Wow! You don’t see many chick pilots!’ And, while utterly misogynistic, the barista was in fact right. In 2018, around six per cent of licenced pilots were female (the figure being around the same in Australia as it is in the USA) with around four per cent of airline pilots, worldwide, being women.
Why are there so few female pilots?
To look for answers, I turned to my local community of female pilots; the wider pilot community in general and some of the studies in Absent Aviators: Gender Issues in Aviation edited by Donna Bridges, Jane Neal-Smith, and Albert Mills (Ashgate, 2014). One study—conducted by Deanne Gibbons, a member of the Royal Australian Air Force—indicated that young girls view piloting as difficult, dangerous, and ‘more of a man’s job’. Additionally, ‘views about what constitutes a “typical pilot” were extremely strong,’ writes Gibbons. ‘A number of participants expressed a belief that they wouldn’t suit flying because they lacked the typical pilot traits of arrogance, overt confidence and a lifelong obsession with aviation.’
There is evidence, says Gibbons, that girls who become either commercial or military pilots, have had an early association with flying, something Gibbons labels ‘an epiphany moment’. These were triggered by direct exposure to flying: either visiting the cockpit during a commercial flight, watching aircraft take off from an airfield, or experiencing a joy ride. Most of the women interviewed experienced their epiphany moment between the ages of five and ten. These childhood experiences were then bolstered by hands-on flying experiences during the girls’ teenage years. The participants also described having ‘aviation-obsessed’ fathers who encouraged their interest.
James Kightly, a volunteer at the Australian National Aviation Museum, and instrumental in Moorabbin’s Open Cockpit Days, tackles gender bias by reaching out to the general public to expose them to aviation. ‘Many people, especially post 9/11, don’t get a chance to experience a cockpit. I notice, often when we have open cockpit days, women are often there by way of their partners or sons. They often appear “switched off”. I’ll always engage them in conversations, often along the lines of historical female pilots, and encouraging them into the cockpit always yields a series of questions. After having reached out further into the community, a few weeks ago we had a visit from a local ladies swimming group, and they were incredibly engaged. It’s integral to open the doors to everybody to break down gender bias across the community.’
Educate, communicate, aviate
Helicopter pilot Lisa O’Neill tells me, ‘Growing up, I think I always assumed pilots were men. We took my dad to the airport all the time as he travelled with work and I never saw women walking around in uniform; always men! I remember doing a trail introductory flight on my 16th birthday and the entire flying school was men: male students, male staff! I then told my career advisor—who was a female—that I wanted to become a pilot when I left school and she told me to be realistic!
‘Initially, I saw very few female pilots in the industry. Any time I saw marketing material, male pilots were depicted; websites referred to “he” and the stories I read were always about men. The message was that women really had no place in a “cockpit” and that joke seemed to be a common theme amongst any man I ever came across, both in the industry and out!’
‘The first real influx of females I saw was when I hosted a Women in Aviation event. Things are changing, slowly: airlines are finally talking about their female pilots, the air force is showing women in their ads and slowly girls are seeing that they have a place in aviation.’
Tam Camelleri, president of the Australian chapter of Women of Aviation Worldwide (WOAW) adds, ‘I believe overall the industry is just starting to become more welcoming for women, but there are still plenty of stereotypes and challenges out there for us girls. Gender bias is still very prominent although the big players in industry will say it’s not.’
‘We make up just under five per cent in commercial pilots and less than two per cent in engineering. In 2013, when I launched WOAW in Australia, it was collaborative with a friend in the RAAF who lead an initiative of flight camps for girls; they now also have engineering camps for girls through the RAAF. At that point, the percentage of women applying for the RAAF in any role was low, around 12 per cent. They have worked to change this throughout defence with a very strong visual marketing program. The RAAF stated at our Women in Aviation conference in September last year that their numbers are now close to 20 per cent.
‘There are still very few female role models in aviation, but more than we had 10 years ago; the change is happening, but it is very slow. Women still suffer discrimination in the aviation industry, any professional female pilot will tell you stories!’
‘Education is the key to bring about the change in our industry and it starts at home with our own children, educating them that they can do anything they desire, introducing them to our role models, male or female, then through the school networks. Mentoring comes later, to support and nurture that pathway. I believe parents are the key. Change the perception of what a pilot, fireman, nurse, doctor, engineer, scientist, teacher, should look like then we have created a shift in gender bias around careers for all of our children.’
Private pilot Pamela Tomlinson agrees. ‘It really does start in schools and I think there has been an increase in encouraging young women into science, technology, engineering and math’s’ fields over the last 10 years. I remember telling my careers teacher I wanted to be a pilot and was told I should try being a flight attendant instead. I also had family tell me I wasn’t smart enough to get my licence. I came from a low socioeconomic background, so our family didn’t aim high for careers, so I certainly wasn’t encouraged.’
The minority catch 22
The fact that women are in a minority in aviation has an impact in several ways:
- The general public are not exposed to the industry, allowing gender bias to perpetuate, as demonstrated above.
- Those women in the sector are often, by nature of their struggle to be there, determined and single-minded, leading their role to be glamorised.
- In roles that are gender imbalance, other women are often alienated from ‘wanting to work so hard just to be equal to men’ (as one interviewee stressed.
As a female instructor tells me, ‘The women pilots I know are go-getters, who don’t make excuses about how evil men are holding them back. They get stuck into flying and they go at it extremely well. We are responsible for our own choices. We can decide to succeed, or we can decide to be mediocre and blame others. The women pilots I know are exceptional people in many ways and they don’t blame anyone for their choices. Bring on the strong, focused women!’
While it is, on one hand, comforting to know that women who are pilots do so as a result of utter determination and a refusal to be discriminated against, I would like to see the day when the playing field is so level that a female student pilot only has to work as hard as her male counterpart. While the field is so unlevel, many woman pilots automatically bear the extra work load of mentor and role model to up-and-coming female pilots.
Will addressing the gender imbalance make us safer?
Another of aviation’s catch-22s is that there are too few women in aviation to accurately ascertain whether female pilots have a positive impact on aviation safety.
However, the RAAF leads the research on the positive effects of diversity. Initiatives such as Jasper: Girls in Stem and the Pathway to Change strategy, in turn encouraging women in the defence sector and stamping out workplace bullying, have seen not only an increase in female recruits, but a change in culture. A more diverse culture, with a focus on communication, team playing and respect, will invariably improve the workplace.
It has been established in multiple studies that there is a variation in aptitude, skills and cognitive abilities between male and female pilots. The largest cognitive gender differences are found in visual-spatial abilities. Research has demonstrated that males possess greater visual/spatial skills than females. However, females possess stronger verbal skills than males. While spatial skills are important to obtain proficiency in take-off and landing procedures, in traffic avoidance and basic manoeuvring of aircraft, verbal skills are vital to maintain safe air traffic control communication and facilitate cockpit crew coordination, and it’s in this area women really do seem to excel.
A Flight Safety Australia article ‘Women’s Work’ addressed this topic in some detail, with a focus on the fact that while gender only plays a small role in a pilot’s safety orientation, communication factors and differing management styles, and the difference in the way women multi-task arguably lead to a safer community.
The accident rate on the roads, and the fact that motor insurance is generally lower for females than males, supports the argument that women tend towards a safer, less accident-driven approach to machinery!
People, not gender
Until the imbalance is redressed, it’s impossible not to look at positive discrimination to reset the balance. This includes quotas, a positive approach to education and a serious look at flying schools who could create a more ‘female-friendly’ atmosphere simply by posting photographs of pilots of both genders.
‘For some time now, debate about gender issues and workplace equality has largely been focused on women. While it is true that woman are under-represented in the Air Force, and we need to improve the number of women, workplace opportunity and equality is for all members and all leaders,’ Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Leo Davies, said in a statement.
‘This means removing barriers, removing bias and discrimination, and including representation from all parts of Australian society that share our Air Force values to ensure we have full representation within our Air Force. Diversity is about capability and enhancing our workplace.’
Once the gender balance is redressed, maybe our future will not only be safer and possibly kinder, but we may live in a world where my riddle is redundant.