Focus: Why is the aviation industry still struggling to attract female pilots?

We investigate why, amidst the looming shortage of commercial pilots, a new report has revealed that just 6% of those currently in operation are women
Image for illustrative purposes only (Image credit: Shutterstock)
By Jane Talbot
Mon 03 Nov 2014 09:45 AM

A looming shortage of commercial pilots has been widely reported, with estimates ranging from CTC Aviation’s claim that 235,000 more pilots will be needed in the next seven years through to Boeing belief that a further 533,000 pilots will be necessary in the next two decades. What has been less considered is the potential solution an increase in the number of female flight crew could provide airlines destined to have more aircraft than they have pilots qualified to operate them.

As reported by Women of Aviation International, of the pilots currently in operation at commercial airlines, only 6 percent of them are female. To put this into context, the once male dominated medical sector has seen the number of females graduating as doctors increase globally to almost 40 percent in the last 30 years. Aviation is lagging desperately behind.

One obstacle to encouraging more female flight crew would appear to be attitude - not of potential employees but of passengers. A recent example of March this year is that of Carey Smith Steacy, a female First Officer with WestJet Airlines. She received a note from a passenger that read: “The Cockpit of an Airliner is no place for a woman: I wish WestJet would tell me that a fair lady is at the helm so I can book on another flight”.

Steacy is not alone in her experience. Canadian Christina De Auer is a 47-year-old female pilot with Delta Airlines. With 19 years of flying experience in the USA, De Auer supports this notion. “In the early stages of my flying career for sure there was some discrimination… Later in the charter business, many owners did not want a female pilot because they felt it might frighten or worry their clients. At the airlines, there was little or no difficulty with the other pilots in that regard. Once you made it to this level you were respected for the job that you did,” she says.

De Auer believes that the nature of the job, or at least the perception of it, explains the lack of female pilots flying planes for major carriers around the world today. “Most women are just not interested in the technical and mechanical nature of the job,” she adds.

Angela Masson is the former head of the International Society of Women in Aviation, as a retired American Airlines pilot she is not surprised that women do not gravitate to the vocation. During an interview with CNN, she said: “I suppose if the job were just were just concerned with flying, there would be a lot more women: but it is wrapped up in a whole lot of other unappealing circumstances.”

In an effort to tackle these perceptions, and to increase the number of female pilots, carriers are considering ways of attracting more females onto their training programmes. For example, British Airways launched their ‘Future Pilots Programme’ in November 2013. Their director of flight operations, Captain Stephen Riley, stressed the airlines enthusiasm for female applicant as it looked to improve on its industry leading 18:1 male to female ratio. “Even though we have more female pilots than any other UK carrier, the number does not nearly represent the general population, and I actively encourage any women considering a career in flying to apply,” he said.

While steps have been taken in the West, the more conservative views in the GCC could hinder the recruitment of female flight crew for local carriers looking to increase the number of female pilots they employ. Yet doors have been opened, and progress is being made. For example, the UAE government's Emiratisation programme has seen Emirates Airlines and Etihad gain their first female Emirati cadets and First Officers proudly representing their country in the cockpit.

One of Royal Jordanian’s 20 female pilots, Alia Twal has been advocating the increase of female pilots in the region through her association with the 99’s, an International organisation, founded in 1929 by Amelia Earhart. It consists of successful women in the aviation industry, spanning 35 countries, with chapters as far reaching as the United States to India to Malaysia. The organisation provides sponsorship, motivation, comradeship and support for any women looking to progress in the aviation world. “Since I have become governor, I have brought eight members to the 99s and, in the process, have unified these women and empowered them in their own community. They are developing relationships and interacting for advice and assistance. We are all looking forward to a bright future of Arabian pilots and we are all hoping to open doors for the women to come,” she said.

GCC carriers have trodden unchartered ground in the region simply by being equal opportunity employers, however to boost the number of female pilots and to further cement the GCC as the centre of innovative aviation, comprehensive initiatives are crucial.

Q&A with Georgie Roles, Senior First Officer with British Airways

Can you tell us briefly about yourself, and how long you’ve been flying for?

I have worked as a commercial airline pilot for British Airways for 15 years. I was fortunate enough to be selected for pilot training immediately after finishing university through the British Airways Cadet pilot scheme, which is similar to today’s Future Pilot Programme run by British Airways. From a very young age I wanted to be a pilot for British Airways and consider myself exceptionally fortunate to have a job that I love as much as I do.

As a female pilot flying into the gulf region, have you faced any challenges, or stereotypes, either from the passengers or colleagues?

The image of a male airline pilot is still very much the stereotype and one that is used in ad campaigns, films and the media in general. Also, while there are more female airline pilots now than there were previously, we are still very much a minority. As a result of this the expectation of many – be they colleagues or passengers – is for the two pilots of an airliner to be male. This stereotype is worldwide in my personal experience and the gulf region is no different. Nearly all female pilots have had experience of this stereotype and accept it as part of their daily role.

Having said that, it is very rare to experience any negativities associated with this stereotype because it is accepted that female pilots have undergone the same rigorous training that all British Airways pilots must complete. Surprise is generally followed by encouragement and support.

As a woman, did you feel it was tougher to make it as a pilot?

Not at all. The process that has to be followed to become a pilot involves training and testing that is strictly adhered to, whoever you are. We all face the same challenges and are considered equally by those awarding us our licence.

Do you have any advice to offer the airlines that are trying to increase the number of female pilots in their companies? Or, in other words, what is lacking in attracting females to this field?

Being an airline pilot requires determination and dedication. For many of us, flying aeroplanes is our passion in life. For airlines to have more female pilots, it would not involve creating an interest in the role amongst those who haven’t previously considered it, but nurturing and encouraging those with a desire to become a pilot.

As British Airways does, all airlines simply need to include female pilots in their workforce and promote their desire to increase the numbers who feel able to pursue their dream of flying. It should be considered however that gender alone may always play a role in creating a disparity of numbers within certain occupations to which they are naturally more suited, no matter how “attractive” that role is made to the minority group.

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Last Updated: Thu 26 Jan 2017 01:27 PM GST

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