For many years, the number of women in most professions which were previously dominated by men has been steadily increasing. But there is just one exception. There have always been very few women airline pilots, and that is still the case. So what are the reasons for this, and what can be done about it?
How Many Women Airline Pilots Are There?
Throughout the world, around three per cent of pilots are female. This has been the case for many years, and despite increasing equality in other professions, the numbers have changed very little. In 2015, the International Society of Women Airline Pilots estimated that there were about 4,000 women pilots worldwide, out of a total 130,000 pilots, ie just over three per cent. Another estimate, by EasyJet, puts the total slightly higher, at five per cent, with six per cent of its own flying staff female. British Airways is about the same; it says about six per cent of its pilots are women – that’s 200 out of 3,500. But this is still very, very few. So what are the reasons for this?
Tradition – It’s a Man’s Job
Women in the cockpit is a recent phenomenon. Most airlines would not accept female pilots until around the 1970s. Even after that, most of the early women pilots encountered prejudice, both from colleagues and the public. When Yvonne Pope Sintes became Britain’s first commercial airline captain in 1972, she was told by a male pilot that if a woman ever joined he would resign. Young girls were frequently told, even by careers advisors, that piloting it was a man’s job, and steered towards becoming cabin crew.
Despite more men taking part in childcare and looking after the home than in the past, most people still consider this as primarily a woman’s role. This means that many women are put off seeking an airline job because of the antisocial hours and long stints away from home. Women tend to perceive aviation as incompatible with family life. Even these days, a male long haul pilot expects his wife to take care of the home and family while he is away; the reverse is uncommon.
Education and Confidence
Despite campaigns to encourage more girls to study science subjects, many of them still think of these subjects as not for them. And many of them lack confidence in anything related to machines, and particularly flying. As a helicopter instructor, the most frequent reason I have been given by women for not taking up flying was simply, “Oh no, I couldn’t do something like that”. Men, on the other hand, always assume they can do it. They might not want to, they maybe can’t afford to, but they assume that they would be able to.
Change is in the Air…
Despite the above having been the case for more than 50 years, it looks as though things are now changing. With a worldwide shortage of pilots, airlines are recognising that half of potential new pilots are not applying, and are trying to do something about it. Some have specific initiatives to attract women airline pilots; for example, Easyjet has announced that it is on track to recruit eighteen per cent female pilot entrants this year, an increase of three per cent on 2018. Other airlines are trying to become more family friendly, improving things such as maternity leave, and trying to enable pilots to achieve a better work-life balance. One pilot was recently quoted as saying that the job could have fairly flexible hours which could be fitted around family life in many cases: “My husband and I are both part-time pilots. I work the days when he’s not working so we can manage the childcare between us”.
Of course, such problems are not unique to aviation. They occur for many professional people with children, if both partners are trying to maintain a successful career. Solutions have usually been found, and hopefully this will soon be the case in the airline industry too.
Helen is a retired pilot and flight instructor who has traveled around the world and visited more than 70 countries. An award-winning journalist and author, she has been writing for world-class aviation-focused publications.