Woman pilot chair AXIS

Your correspondent remembers the first time he flew with a female pilot, on a transatlantic flight by a US carrier sometime around 2005. It was a surprise to hear her voice on the intercom; but why should that be? Why, over a generation after airlines began hiring women pilots, should they still only make up 5.3 % of commercial pilots worldwide? It is estimated that by 2040 airlines will need 800,000 new pilots, and they are actively encouraging female applications. So why are they still so rare?

The picture of course varies regionally and from airline to airline, and sometimes in ways you might not expect. According to Jan 2020 figures from the International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISWAP), broadly speaking the US airlines are just average with around 5% female pilots, with United in the lead at 7.4 %. Canada is a bit better than the US total with an average 6.8 %, but the real standout region is India with an average 12.4 % female pilots. Compare that to SAS at 3.8 %, not to mention Asia’s paltry 1.5 % regional average. In the German-speaking world Lufthansa comes in at 7 %; ISWAP figures don’t cover Austrian or Swiss, but other sources (aviationvoice.com 2019, fromatob.com 2018) put them at around 5 %. As you might expect, Icelandair is high at 10.9 % – but that begs the question, given that women are half the population, why do we think of 10 % as “high”?

Like in so many technical fields, the scarcity of female pilots has much to do with the answers to the classic question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Boys are much more likely to say “pilot” than are girls. That, and the fact that girls are generally not expected or encouraged to pursue the STEM subjects to the same extent as boys. Pilots need to understand math, technology and physics, girls need to know that they have the same potential in those subjects as boys, and career counsellors in schools need to take piloting seriously as an option for girls.

Another factor is the persistent idea that piloting is family-unfriendly. Yet stewardesses abound on exactly the same aircraft as male pilots; no one seems to be concerned about family-friendliness for flight attendants. And the fact of the matter is that piloting is actually ideal for women planning to have kids – in few other professions is it so easy to take maternity leave and then come back and pick up at the same place you left off. No new office politics to adjust to, no altered group dynamics, just the cockpit. Salary is based on seniority, not corporate gamesmanship and most definitely not gender.

At the end of the day, what keeps the front of the plane 95 % male-dominated is a combination of socialization and societal expectations. But the profession is open, and indeed welcoming, to any women with the desire and aptitude for it. Attitudes on the employer side are changing fast as airlines compete for personnel; for example, Turkish Airlines upped its hiring of female pilots from just 6 in 2006 to 211 in 2020 (Daily Sabah, 1-19-20). Many airlines have special programs to recruit women pilots, and the IATA’s “25 by 2025” initiative targets 25 % women leaders in aviation, including pilots, by 2025.  Change is in the wings, and hopefully in a few years it will no longer be unusual to hear a female voice say, “Hello, this is your captain speaking.”