Where are all the Women?

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© Civil Aviation Safety Authority

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.

35 COMMENTS

  1. Why is it that these sorts of articles make it out as being wrong not having more females? Christ it is what it is!!!! Everything these days is based around gender, spare us !

    • andy everything will still be based around gender until gender is not an issue when it comes to what men and women want to do, rather it should be based on ability. As a female who was a solo glider pilot for many years I can confirm that there has been, and still is, discrimination against women in the aviation arena. Many men are accepting and even encouraging, more so now than 50 years ago when I first encountered gliding. I was told when in my teen and twenties that only men could become commercial pilots. My own father, who was a pilot during the war and later a glider pilot and instructor, tried to have women banned from our gliding club as full flying members. He thought they should be restricted to associate members, there to make the tea and look after the male pilots. This sort of attitude, while thankfully nowhere near as prevalent now, still has an ongoing impact on women who want to become a pilot, particularly a commercial or RAAF pilot.

      • I can imagine you and your dad arguing!!
        There were and still are many parents who will tell their kids “you can’t” which is a real shame and should be discouraged, if not banned. But the “you can’t” attitude is also cropping up everywhere else, governments, local councils, and all the rules and hoops one has to follow in order to do anything.
        As kids in the 60’s we learned to drive as soon as we could reach the pedals, sometimes on our parents lap. There was no power steering then, nothing electric except the ignition, lights and maybe a radio if it worked. You learned quickly that you couldn’t steer while stationary.

    • It really doesn’t matter about the actual numbers of male and female pilots. What really matters is that we ensure that aviation as a career option is open to both females and males equally, with no gender-based barriers.

      • I was going to be economical with my reply but the system did not like my brevity, so now after expending a ridiculousness number of words to say very little, I will repeat my original comment verbatim –

        Well said !

  2. I believe that it is no one’s fault that there is a low intake of women into Aviation work (including RAAF). Some jobs ,like Flying, require one to learn the theory and absorb it while doing the practical flying skills.
    Aviation has a lot of maths and physics problem solving, while a lot of the Maths is logical, this is where in todays ages there is failure at understanding logical maths (simple arithmetic). Schools are crying out for professional Maths & Physics Teachers, but at the same time , there are very low number of pupils sitting and/or passing mathematics and physics right up to year 12 (senior level). You cannot keep blaming workplace equality and gender issues when the intake for women is as low as 6% and 4% world wide. Taking on a job like Flying means one thing only, either you’ve got the goods in the brain or you haven’t. Most men, it appears have the “goods” for both Civil and RAAF/Army/Navy flying requirements. It was only just recently that a National outcry was advertised of the shortage of Pilots for todays aviation, that QANTAS is building a new training school at Warwick/Toowoomba, albeit to encourage both Men & Women to become professional pilots, now theirs nothing gender bias or inequality about that.

    • Wrong. The majority of men dontdhave the goods to be pilots. Maybe 10% of men do, 20% think they do, and the rest just don’t. Those figures are probably similar for women.

    • Barry Barwick you are so wrong it is not funny. There are many women who have “the goods in the brain” as you put it to become pilots, but they are discouraged from even trying. There is still the view that women should not be pilots, I still hear it today when men see a woman pilot entering the cockpit of a commercial flight, expressing a preference for the pilot to be a male – as if having a penis will help them fly more competently or safely! As a female who was a solo glider pilot for many years I can confirm that there has been, and still is, discrimination against women in the aviation arena. Many men are accepting and even encouraging, more so now than 50 years ago when I first encountered gliding. I was told when in my teen and twenties that only men could become commercial pilots. My own father, who was a pilot during the war and later a glider pilot and instructor, tried to have women banned from our gliding club as full flying members. He thought they should be restricted to associate members, there to make the tea and look after the male pilots. This sort of attitude, while thankfully nowhere near as prevalent now, still has an ongoing impact on women who want to become pilot, particularly a commercial or RAAF pilot. By the way, my maths was better than my brother’s, yet my father tried to encourage him to start flying, but didn’t encourage me. It will take generations for that type of prejudice to die out.

      • Your right Margaret, as I said its not about Gender or inequality, its discrimination and that unfortunately is apart of everyday work life/home life/social life, when Men & Women have to work together and some of us can’t, as it seems. In the days of the 60s/70s/80s/90s boys and girls were kept separated at school, so that pupils would learn better. When there’s a mix of Genders at school and workplace , not all goes according to plan. and learning schools subjects and skills is not a 100% anymore. The goods in the Brain for flying does apply for aptitude testing prior to becoming a professional pilot with todays Jet Industry, its all about how good a person can adapt to high altitude flying (remember Men & Women were never meant to Fly in Aeroplanes)

    • Exactly ! It’s as if the male species is all at fault here! No one is stopping females to enter any industry but bloody hell get over it everyone !

  3. Quote; “It has been established in multiple studies that there is a variation in aptitude, skills and cognitive abilities between male and female pilots.”
    This whole paragraph is deceptive. Statistics are all about numbers and averages. Anything can be read into them. But averages and medians don’t mean that exceptional people are insignificant.
    Plenty of women have spacial skills which are better than plenty of men. The gist of this whole paragraph is part of the problem. If you assume it is true, women are disadvantaged.
    With enough training, just about anyone can learn spacial awareness so that they can land a plane.
    What blows me away is the way women ferried new fighters around England during WW2. It’s a long and enthralling story.
    I think that many women are simply more afraid of flying, or driving fast, or doing anything risky, and I don’t know the reason why. I suspect it is caused by their mothers.
    I decided not to become a commercial pilot, the job looked too boring, more so than a taxi driver.
    But imagine two women pilots in a long haul airliner. Plenty to talk about and stay awake, and the ability to multitask as well.

    • I’m not a pilot, but a retired air traffic controller. By the time I left, our ranks were probably 25-30% female, and many of the better controllers, maybe some of the best, were women. Perhaps testosterone driven young men are more adventurous in their job choices, but many women report that same “Ah ha!” moment on their first flight as men often do, and get bitten by the flying bug.

      Similarly, my skydiving club was doing a demonstration jump into a local AAA ball park. Out of 20 jumpers, we had perhaps 8 women. You should have heard the crowd’s roar when, after landing, the helmets came off and all of them shook out their long hair (yes, preplanned, but wonderful theatrics). I can only imagine all the young girls in the stands thinking “I can do that too someday!”

      I think it’s just a matter of exposing women to alternative career paths.

  4. Kreisha – Another well thought out, progressive argument – well done. I have had a life long involvement with mobile equipment. At times I have had a training role and have found females to be excellent students. Often unsure of themselves at first, occasionally slower (not a bad thing at all) but in general better listeners and far less likely to “explore the envelope” than their male peers. I wont go on to bag my fellow males because their approach also has its merits, but if I want the services of a reliable machine operator and a female is available I would usually pick her first.
    I would be careful of the road diving analogies – it is far more complicated than your comment or the dollar motivated insurance companies would suggest.

  5. Kreisha – I look forward to your articles and this one did not disappoint. Thanks! Interesting the reaction from a number of male readers?! Having said that, we are all most certainly entitled to express our view, that being a ‘given’, it is a little disappointing more women have not voiced their view yet. No doubt that will happen in the near future.
    I would like to submit that a percentage of the male replies so far seem quite subjective and somewhat patronising- I think if a woman were so inclined she could cope quite well with the required theory learnings necessary!
    My only piece of feedback on one of your proposed ways to address raising the female numbers piloting aircraft- Quotas- My personal view on quotas is that one is capable and proficient for the task- or not. And that goes for any role in society, firefighter, police personnel, ambulance, paramedic, bus driver, pilot, cabin crew, in fact any role where a woman can contribute equally and/or differently. But still contributes in a constructive and responsible manner should be considered for suitability.
    As a footnote: From personal experience I can say unequivocally that gender discrimination is alive and well in most aspects of Australian Aviation. The situation has improved but ever so gradually during the past 15-20yrs. So more power to the women in Australian Aviation!

    • It’s always toughest for the pioneers. Perhaps an association of Australian women pilots could help with supporting the newer women trying to break into aviation.

      • Such as the Australian Women Pilots Association, or the world wide Women in Aviation Association (which is quoted here)?

  6. In my flying club we have about 150 past and present pilots, two of whom are women (one still flying). My unit overlooks 199 marina berths – if there are any boats owned by ladies, I suspect they are widows. I do not detect any gender bias, and I say that as a man who has a sister, wife, three daughters and six granddaughters, none of whom are interested in flying or boating, despite Nancy Bird and Cottee. I am also unaware of any men interested in sewing or quilting. Could it be that men and women have different interests?

  7. As a mature male (greying) it would seem to me its not about the numbers as such, its about the equal opportunity to enter the activity (profession/sport) you are attracted too. Numbers prompt the question – why do so few women wish to become pilots? We should not use numbers alone to make a judgement . Ideally we should always be welcoming and restrict opinion to objective judgements of a persons contribution. The nurture/gender debate still has some distance to go befor we can be certain a persons choice of activity is not unduly influenced by societal expectations/channelling.

  8. As far as gender inequality goes I am afraid the only solution is going to be legislation. Only when they are obligated will employers actively seek out female employees. The more females in prominent positions then the more interest in advancing to those positions will be generated. My granddaughter told me she wanted to be a vetinary nurse. I said why not be a vet?
    Incidentally today I heard a lady pilot driving a dash 8. She sounded very young but extremely professional.

  9. I am sorry, women will not be equal until they believe they are, and articles like this just make men laugh at us. My aero club has a high percentage of female flying regulars. Probably about 40%. We fly everything from C180’s and RV4’s to Jabirus, Tecnams and Brumbies. We glide and we parachute, some of us dabble in helicopters, and we never say “I can’t, I am a girl” I am a firm believer that it is our mothers who are to blame, but it is societal pressure that causes that. Girl babies are dressed in pink and given dolls, boy babies in blue and are given cars. Thankfully my family were poor and I got hand me downs from my male cousins. I hung out with them and my dad more than my mum. I fly, I ride motorcycles, I sail. I know women who do all these things, sometimes better than men. When I am not out playing with my toys, I am at home knitting. My flying instructor, male, also knits. Women need to stop asking for equality and start earning it, and believing they are equal. The only thing I can’t do is wee against a tree… or in a bottle on long flights…

    • With that high of a percentage of women pilots , I doubt there are many sexist attitudes thriving in your club. But when the number of women is much lower, I’ve seen those kinds of attitudes come out. Congratulations on building such a successful group.

      • KM- I agree with the thrust of your comment however, I would suggest, your club is far from typical.
        In my subjective experience there is a general failure to attract new recruits of any gender, particularly women

  10. The lady flight instructor basically summed up everything I’ve seen, heard and learnt first hand over the last 15 years. That the article totally disregard this first hand on the ground advice is detrimental to the overall message.

  11. My wife is a pilot,
    She was not the victim of discrimination until she came back from maternity leave after the birth of our 2nd gorgeous girl.
    She works for a big airline (not the biggest).
    She was the most qualified female pilot in their ranks and now after a management change is only a line captain.
    My advice to any aspiring female pilots is,
    Ask how many female management pilots the company has and how many females hold check and training qualifications.
    If the answer is only one or two don’t be sucked in by cadet intake quotas “we value female pilots” and the like because they want you to prop up the numbers but they don’t want you in charge of anything.

    • I would be having a very agressive talk with that new management. Sound dodgy or maybe illegal to me.
      Which airline, I won’t fly with them.
      I prefer female pilots.

      • I hardly think anyone is gunna name & shame the actual Airline! That would be employment suicide! It is what it is, ne has to way up just how much you are prepared to change yr life significantly by fighting management, they have ways of making their problems disappear!

  12. I’m a commercial helicopter pilot. I got there much later in life on my own steam through dogged determination, persistence and overcoming the obstacles and naysayers. Even with those attributes, and others I can bring to the workplace, the challenge remains getting employed as a NOT-twenty-something woman. Even with extras designed to impress – self funded ratings and endorsements, HR truck licence, DG authorisation, HUET…

    • In the ugly industry of commercial aviation it’s not what you know but who you know. It’s always been like that, corruption at all levels reigns!

  13. Who you know – This sort of systemic corruption is endemic in our society. I do not approve of it in any way but its as old as humans/apes have been around and presumably will continue well into the future. The reality is that those who are good at “net working” (male or female) are likely to succeed – my advise put more emphasis on your social skills (not suggesting you are deficient) even if it makes you feel a little sick..

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