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The Unfriendly Skies: Why Is There a Shortage of Females on the Flightdeck?

The Unfriendly Skies: Why Is There a Shortage of Females on the Flightdeck?
Brenda Bertram

In the United States in 2018, only 5% of all commercial pilots were female. Minorities accounted for an even tinier percentage. In the same year, there were less than 100 African-American female commercial pilots worldwide. It’s often stated that one of the biggest hurdles to attracting females into the pilot profession is a catch-22: there aren’t many women flying, and because they aren’t particularly visible: other women don’t know its an option. Is it really that simple, though?

“I Didn’t Know Becoming a Pilot Was an Option for Girls.”

Kate Richards, an Australian pilot, certainly agrees. She feels that women know they are perfectly capable of becoming a pilot and have no problem challenging “the boys” in terms of this capability. However, she states that many young women don’t even know that it’s an option, particularly if they are from a non-aviation family.

It seems, though, that airlines just haven’t hit the elusive formula on the head – how to get more women into aviation. Despite this, there are some laudable efforts to increase participation underway. The Amy Johnson Initiative—run by EasyJet—aimed to increase the number of new entrant female pilots to 12% by 2020, a goal it achieved in its first year. It is now looking to achieve 20% by 2020, a massive increase compared to most airlines. A large number of flying schools and universities in the United States are starting to target a female demographic as a pipeline into training schools, enlightening young minds (some at elementary school level) to the long term career options available to them.

India is one place that seems to be bucking the trend—although it still has a long way to go. In 2017, 11.6% of all pilots registered in India were female. There are a few contributing factors to this situation: India has good maternity leave benefits, allowing 26 weeks paid leave to female pilots, and some airlines (including Indigo) offer flexible working opportunities to working mothers. Indigo runs a crèche for its employees and has a system that allows office jobs to be allocated to pregnant pilots if they are unable to fly. These pilots are compensated for any loss of income resulting from the shift to a desk job. Attitudes in India towards females in aviation are also fairly liberal. Kshamta Bajpa, a pilot for Air India, stated in 2019 that “urban India has stopped differentiating between what a girl should pursue as a career and what a boy should do”.

It’s Not a Question of Capability

In 1996, a study indicated that accident rates for female and male pilots were around the same. This isn’t a surprise. While the traveling public still seems to experience occasional shock when they see a woman flying a plane, standards of training are the same across the sexes. Aviation is no different than bus drivers of different genders having to follow the same procedures. While men and women have different strengths—a 2000 study noted that men were more spatially aware when flying, and women quicker to respond in an emergency—the individual differences between genders are not significant enough to warrant either of them being shut out of the market. A 2006 Australian study revealed that female pilots achieved higher test scores overall, but that both males and females de-emphasized female capabilities across the board.

The worldwide pilot shortage could potentially be rectified by utilizing the female population, alongside their capable male counterparts. The current inability of most commercial airlines to recruit and retain female pilots is a massive issue and can constrain growth and hinder expansion by failing to capitalize on women’s skill sets.

As increasing numbers of young women start to fly commercially, will we see any radical changes to the world of aviation? No. We shouldn’t see any change at all, barring a female voice talking over the loud-speaker of the plane. It seems ridiculous to even have to state it, but, as noted earlier, the requirements for pilots are non-gender specific competency-based measures. Males and females are trained to the same standard, and in fact, it’s one of only a few industries offering pay equality for males and females.

So, why the problem? Women are capable enough to see themselves as pilots—though they might downplay their abilities—and female-targeted marketing of aviation careers is becoming more widespread. Shouldn’t females be flocking to aviation in droves?

There’s Just That Minor Issue of Culture

An Apache helicopter pilot, Major Seneca Peña-Collazo, summed it up nicely when he surmised that it was women’s presupposed physical inferiorities are routinely seen as a precursor for failure in a male-dominated profession. Throw in the concept of a lack of female ‘emotional coping’ mechanisms into the mix, and opinions become even grimmer.

Female pilot Kimberley Perkins describes aviation as “a good old boys club, which is a homogenized network of people that look and think alike.” To be fair, you do want pilots to think and act similarly – the job is, after all, a highly procedural based role, which doesn’t’ exactly encourage creative thinking. Perkin’s comments aren’t entirely misplaced, though. There are still members of the flying public that are keen to keep the old boys club functioning.

Just five years ago, a female WestJet pilot was handed a handwritten note, found on a plane she was flying, reading ‘The Cockpit of an ainlier (sic) 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’. I’m sure a man who can’t spell the word ‘airliner’ correctly is a paradigm of excellence in society. Sadly, these attitudes remain, and a study in 2017 found that the flying public was generally less willing to fly with female pilots compared to male counterparts. These participants weren’t just male, we should note. There were female passenger participants too, which says something as a whole about society’s perception of women as aviators.

Only Female Pilots Raise Families, Right?

Working as a pilot (or a flight attendant, for that matter) isn’t exactly a family-friendly endeavor. Certain factors can’t be avoided. Long haul pilots aren’t going to be able to pop home in the evening to spend time with their newborns. The fact of the matter, though, is that this impacts both working mothers and fathers. Somehow, though, it is the female pilots that seem to bear the brunt of public opinion on the matter.

In the last few years, some airlines have publicly announced they are thinking of creative ways to support working mothers. This might include, for example, working on local commuting routes to allow working mothers to be home at night. Indigo, as mentioned earlier, offers childcare for the children of pilots. However, given that male-dominated unions negotiate working conditions, breastfeeding may not reach the top of the agenda. At the end of the day, though, the key issue here is supporting all working pilot parents, regardless of gender.

A 2011 study indicated that the main challenges to women in flight training⁠—before they even start their commercial career⁠—are a lack of acceptance, self-efficacy resulting from social reinforcement, lack of social support, and stereotyping. If this is what they face before they ever step into a commercial cockpit, you can see why many would never bother to begin.

Some state that discussing sexism in aviation is preventing us from solving the problem, which in itself presents an interesting argument. Do we really expect that attitudes towards women are naturally going to change without intervention? That women will all of a sudden start to become attracted en-masse to flying planes, for no apparent reason? Like crime, poverty, or ignorance, sexism won’t just fade away because we decide to ignore it. Ignorance is only bliss for the privileged.

Will You Reinforce the Stereotype?

This article, without a doubt, will draw the types of remarks that I am sure women in aviation have had to face for the last 30 or 40 years. In themselves, those comments are likely to support the widely accepted notion that women pilots are subjected to sexist comments and behavior from colleagues and passengers. This, compounded with the attractiveness of aviation as a career, is a major issue. With high loans and a stressful operating environment, aviation careers are becoming less attractive to the Western world of workers every year.

Why would young people, in a technologically driven world, want to big pay money to train for a job that demands a very specific skill set, which in time is likely to be displaced at least partially by automation? This issue applies regardless of gender. As described by FlightGlobal, this “sounds not so much like a career that ends with a generous pension, as a recipe for being left with nowhere to go when the next technology revolution – or the whim of a cost-cutting boss on a huge salary and hefty bonus – leaves you unemployed.”

By continuing to marginalize women in aviation, though, we will only compound this issue. In 2018, 47% of the US labor force was female.

It’s safe to say that we are missing a big opportunity.

View Comments (19)


  1. FlyGUYClipper

    September 26, 2019 at 5:53 pm

    Oh NO –another story of unfair, Gender and Race based unfairness. GIve us a break, there are far more than 5% Female Pilots, I fly all the time [I work for an airline] and there are a LOT of Female let alone minorities. Who are you the Race Police??, A LOT MORE THAN 5%!. Everything is flawed when looking through a lens like this. It’s really nobodies business how many this color or that color of people are in the world are doing any one thing!!. Stop looking at people through a colored glasses. It you that’s the problem is with not the Another journalist destroying the profession— Try to provide facts and let people decide—.

  2. Toshbaf

    September 26, 2019 at 7:58 pm

    One flaw. Some pilots, women AND men, are too weak. Boeing says there’s a wheel that requires too much strength to turn in the 737 MAX.

  3. SpartyAir

    September 27, 2019 at 3:01 am

    do you suppose maybe that many women just are not interested in being a pilot? Men like to hunt deer. The vast majority of hunters are men. Nobody is stopping women from hunting. They just are not interested in hunting.

    Why is it that all these left wing idiots have to blame everything that is wrong in this world is caused by men.

  4. gwynedd_gal

    September 27, 2019 at 4:17 am

    I think this article overlooked the flight time requirements for flying bigger commercial jets; so many pilots are military trained because they have a lot of hours of experience; fewer women in that pool of candidates.

    I saw a Lufthansa pilot, a woman on my last trip. She was shorter than the rest of the crew but as we stood there in the terminal, she had an air of authority that radiated from her. You KNEW she was captain and pilot, not just from the stripes on her sleeves.

  5. rylan

    September 27, 2019 at 4:29 am

    Sorry but the opportunities are there. Simple fact is that many pilots have been in the industry for a long time and come from military background, and from that standpoint they are all men. You see newer pilots that are women since more are trying out the profession, but in the older career level since not many women went in 20-30 years ago you see none from that group/generation in the front seat.

  6. GetSetJetSet

    September 27, 2019 at 5:52 am

    Who CARES!? We don’t need to have equal amounts of every group doing every job. Do journalists have directives to write nothing but cry baby stories?

  7. alexmyboy

    September 27, 2019 at 6:32 am

    FlyGUYClipper, you are whiny little brat

  8. Joan Johnson

    September 27, 2019 at 7:01 am

    As indicated in the article, the first two comments are negative; not really surprised. Can the first poster give me an actual statistic on the numbers, seeing they dispute the one in the article. “A LOT more is hardly precise; in your own words please give me the facts. You might see a few females but some places will have none. I bet you don’t even know the statistics in your own airline. Can the second give an idea on how much strength is actually required to “turn the wheel” and what that might actually mean from a flight perspective. If that is an issue then, just maybe, the air craft is poorly designed. I started work in IT networking in the 1980s. Certainly not a job for the faint hearted female. By the time I retired I had a number of women thank me for being a role model for them. I worked for a major company and one of my jobs was assessing network analysers. I got a letter addressed to “Mr”, when I queried I was told there were so few females they didn’t bother to change the database. Most of my coworkers were great but, unfortunately, it takes a great deal of confidence to step in when you are very much the minority. I know. With more, more will come, but it is getting a critical mass in the first instance. People need to stop denying there is an issue and work on the solution.

  9. tbuccelli

    September 27, 2019 at 7:31 am

    “This might include, for example, working on local commuting routes to allow working mothers to be home at night.”

    This could cause another issue though. One of the pilot complaints you hear is that the pay for the commuter pilots is much lower than that for the long haul flyers, so if the airlines target females for these roles, or rather this role for pilots, presumably female, that would prefer this role, the next issue we would hear about would be the pay gap between male and female pilots.

  10. jjangoo

    September 27, 2019 at 8:09 am

    Imagine being the kind of person who makes these points unironically. I miss the old FT.

  11. BSpeaker

    September 27, 2019 at 8:21 am

    I’m a pilot. Female. Got my license in 1975. One woman who got her license with me is a pilot for a major airline. In 1975 I KNEW that was an option. We all did. We hung out with a lot of the guys who were headed that way. It’s a little known fact that in order to get to the pointy end on one of those big birds requires piloting a whole raft of CRJ’s and other puddle jumpers for a long time. You don’t just get your pilot’s license and then go get hired by United. The pay at the beginning of this whole process is miserable and barely covers the bills. Some pilots are at it for 20 years before actually getting into a bigger airline.

    I agree with many of the posters here. Slick the way the author tried to deflect the naysayers right off the bat. Is it because you knew some of the underlying reasons? If a woman wants to start a family as I did, she’s not going to put off babies for 20 years while she tries to climb from a CRJ to a 747. It’s not that I couldn’t fly a 747, indeed one of my dreams still is to fly an F-16! I just didn’t have the heart to go the distance for the big birds. I’m a plane spotter. I used to sit with my kids out at the airport on the road under takeoff and we’d identify what kind of airplane just flew overhead. I love the smell of jet fuel. I love flying my little Super Cub. But be a bus driver for 400 cranky, TSA-weary, smelly, ornery passengers? Not on your life.

    Bottom line? It’s not all that great a job. Why would I do that to myself? Agree with other posters. Stop trying to make an issue out of a non issue.

    In other news, why are there so few women in Trash Collection positions?

  12. DeltaFlyer123

    September 27, 2019 at 8:39 am

    Years ago I read a book by Meryl Getline entitled The World at my Feet. It’s a light-hearted synopsis of her life as one of the first (maybe the first) female captain at United. She got her break when an employment manager thought she was male, judging by her name, and granted her an interview. As this interview just happened during a pilots’ strike at United, they really needed pilots, so she was hired on. She already had substantial experience in Alaska as a commercial airline pilot.
    So she joined United as a “scab”, which was the second black mark against her – the first was that she’s female.
    Years later, when she advanced to a 777 captain, she had a weekly newspaper column answering airplane questions, and that’s where I found out about her then-new book.
    I bought a copy on Amazon, enjoyed it immensely, and wrote a nice review, along with many other nice reviews. Then, months later, came a series of about a half-dozen terrible reviews over the span of a week, and then back to good reviews. Well, it wasn’t hard to figure out that the bad reviews came from fellow pilots, who conspired to write those reviews.
    This is just an example of how women are treated in “men’s” professions.
    My mother was a draftsman, trained in Hungary, and had immense difficulty getting her first job in Canada. Prospective employers said they were expecting her to type (on a typewriter) not draw (on tracing paper). In those days (1950s-‘60’s) it was hard for women to get into “male” jobs – I think airline pilot jobs only accepted women decades behind other technical jobs.
    I therefore do not question the 5% figure, it has been complied by CAPA by surveying multiple airlines that employ about 140 thousand pilots, and found only 5.2% were female.

  13. tromboneboss

    September 27, 2019 at 9:26 am

    This is such a sexist article. What ever happened to just hiring the best person for the job regardless of sex or race? You can’t automatically assume a group of pilots of mixed racers and sexes is automatically better than a homogeneous group of pilots. We are all human individuals. Stop looking at race and sex and start looking at the individual person and their abilities. The best pilots can ends up being mostly white males, or black females, or martians. I don’t care. Give me the best pilots to get me to my destination safely and on time.

  14. CEB

    September 27, 2019 at 10:24 pm

    The only person stereotyping here is the author by disingenuously trying to apply her own biases in a highly prejudicial and incendiary manner. Nuf said.

  15. KLBGO

    September 29, 2019 at 10:07 am

    Who is preventing middle-aged, white, hetero males getting a job as a FA?

  16. tigers2007


    September 30, 2019 at 5:06 am

    Nice sensational “filler” article to fire-up the 70% of silent humans that are getting more pissed by the day of the of this politicized crap. Just like Bspeaker mentions, they’re making a problem out of a non-problem.

  17. weegraeme

    October 2, 2019 at 9:41 pm

    I think the statistic about African-American women worldwide is meaningless. Why would there be an expectation that there would be African-American women (or men) or non-African-American women (or men) anywhere but America? The only place you should “expect” there to be some of these people would be in America, not the rest of the world.

  18. Global321

    October 7, 2019 at 10:33 am

    Agree with others… this is a sexist article with little basis in fact. As others have mentioned, far fewer women are interested in being a pilot. (It is not an easy life.)

    As for other suggestions to give specialized treatment so moms can be home at night. There is a word for it. Sexism. What about single parent dads? Pilots, that take care of their parents? Flying an airliner has a lot of perks… and a lot of negatives. It is a package deal.

    DeltaFlyer123 – you are citing a reference to the 1950s/1960s? You do realize THAT is 40-60 years ago?!?! Even your UA example is completely dated. (And you have no idea who wrote the negative articles. It could have been 2-3 sexist a-holes from wherever. It could have been other pilots. It could have been other women. You simply DONT KNOW.)

  19. Snuggs

    October 8, 2019 at 3:21 am

    Nice summary… “by continuing to marginalize “…. Is that really the argument that you feel your story makes?

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