A Woman’s Place

Why is recruiting more female pilots seemingly beyond the wit of man?

This is a re-run of an article written on Medium in 2018.

More and more Airlines seem to be targeting young women in their ‘recruiting’, ‘bursary’ or ‘cadetship’ schemes (Wondering about the quotations? — read here), and making a big deal about their female pilots in the media. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by certain elements of the flying community both on- and offline and I wanted to talk specifically about the scholarships and career assistance that is being offered exclusively to women.

Carol Vorderman Joins British Airways’ Call for More Female Pilots — The Air League

I felt it was important to address this topic in a way that at least acknowledges the nuances of the subject, and a Facebook post wasn’t going to do the trick; it’s a complex topic, and one I can’t sum up with a click-bait headline, a meme or a snappy video so buckle in for some long-haul turbulence.

For those of you still with me, let’s start with some background. A quick google search throws up the following headlines…

Alongside these headlines are the British Women Pilots Association and the Aviatrix Project — flying organisations aimed exclusively at women.

The question is… why is it necessary to have specific organisations aimed at recruiting a specific gender group?

First, some background, so that we are at least starting from a point of common agreement.

Ask most pilots what the important qualities are if you want to become a pilot and they’ll say a selection of the following:

  • Hand-eye coordination
  • Leadership
  • A good grasp of mathematics and physics
  • Money
  • Calmness under pressure
  • Teamwork skills
  • The right watch

(Check out our Beginners’ Guides here and here to find out what skills we really think you need to become a pilot.)

Betty Skelton and her Pitts “Li’l Stinker” — She held land speed records as well as plenty of flying ones, after flying solo aged 12 (illegally)! She was winning aerobatic championships as early as 1948.

My job sees me working closely with recruiters in an organisation that trains its own pilots and pays for that training; every step. So I’ve a little experience in this area. I am firmly of the opinion that one of the most important factors, when you boil it down far enough, is long-term focussed determination that started at a young age.

Sure, you need some of the other stuff but you’ll have a much better chance at success if you come into it with a bit of pre-existing knowledge and the determination to succeed because you are passionate about it (‘The Bug’).

That means that most people who find themselves as aspiring pilots have had an idea that it is something they’d like to do from a young age. The ones who have the highest chance of success will have had first hand contact with pilots growing up, and first-hand experience of aviation is even more likely to result in success. That said, just ‘wanting it’ alone is never going to be enough. There’s a lot of graft involved.

The what

What’s the issue?

Airlines need more pilots. I was sceptical about it for a long time, but the pilot shortage is finally starting to bite. And the bottom line is we are not recruiting from anything like a wide enough base to guarantee that talent will be available to meet demand.

easyJet set a target of 20% female pilots by 2020, and have now launched virtual school visits. easyJet photo.

At the moment, in excess of 90% of applicants for pilot training and employment are men, who make up just UNDER 50% of the population. That indicates that, on average, women just aren’t as interested in being pilots as men are — at least, not to the point of applying for the job. It hurts both the airlines and the training companies to have several hundred thousand women out there who could be competing to buy training and competing for employment; but aren’t.

Airlines are big, broad operations — with lots of different roles and a big difference in salaries. The pilots on average will have some of the highest earning potential in those companies, so airlines wanting to address the gender pay gap need to get women into these well-paid roles. The tired old argument of ‘well if they want the job, they can apply for it’ begs the question, because it is precisely the lack of women applying that is the issue.

If as many women applied for flying jobs as men, applications would almost double. That’s twice the pool of talent to recruit from.

The why

So why aren’t women (for the most part) interested enough in flying planes to pursue pilot jobs?

Being a pilot is poorly understood and considered a pie-in-the-sky ambition at the best of times, whatever your gender. This means most kids probably won’t get meaningful career advice about professional flying (I know I didn’t) and will likely fall back on what they see in life and the media as a guide to what’s achievable. More importantly, by the time these kids are making up their mind about their employment options, society has already told them that being a pilot is for the boys. It does this in three ways…

Firstly — gender-role stereotyping in children. Some facts…

  1. Most kids decide what they want to do for a living between ages 7 and 18.
  2. Most have an idea about which jobs are done by men and which by women before they reach 7.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to find out that most children under 7 see pilots as men, and this has a radical impact on their understanding of their future possibilities. Anyone interested in knowing more, watch this videoand read this article… maybe read some of the other stuff referenced in it.

Kate McWilliams was 26 when she became the world’s youngest airline captain for easyJet. easyJet photo.

Secondly — Direct experience. Aviation’s innate cliques can put people off. Doubly so if you’re female (or if you don’t ‘belong’ to the core demographic in other ways). Clubs of any kind are places where people can relax among friends, safe in the knowledge that they can be more robust in their language and their banter than they would otherwise be around strangers… this is A HUGE TURN OFF TO STRANGERS. People have similar fear reactions to social awkwardness as they do to death, and a distrust of outsiders is deeply rooted in the human psyche.

Also, in flying clubs with majority male membership of an older persuasion (let’s face it, that’s most of ‘em) the variety of ‘banter’ on offer can create an even more hostile atmosphere. Again, I’m not saying all people or all clubs, and I’m not implying that it’s the President’s club fundraiser, but one unguarded comment is all it takes to give someone the wrong impression.

Third — what happens in life around them and in the media, specifically in how aviation itself is marketed, defines the culture for the outside observer. Whether it’s watches or sailplanes, all the marketers know that if your aim is to part a middle-aged man from his money the best place to shoot is just to one side of where he keeps his wallet.

Sex sells, but there’s a catch. You end up with adverts like this, which is not nearly the worst I’ve seen.

The power of advertising is well understood and widely acknowledged; the messaging from these companies is clear. Aviation is there for men, and so too are any women who happen to be taking part.

These issues perpetuate themselves; women don’t consider a flying a career because they don’t see women pilots when they’re growing up. Social norms and society at large strongly imply to them that being a pilot is not for people ‘like them’. By the time they realise what could have been, they’re invested in some other career and they miss the opportunity to become a pilot and to change the norm.

The how

How do we solve this problem?

Targeted recruiting — it’s a blunt instrument, extremely contentious and it won’t work on its own, but it’s a two-pronged attack. Young women who are the pilots of tomorrow are only going to see female pilots today if we make extra effort to get women into the cockpit NOW. By which of course I don’t mean by making it easier for those women to pass the interview or the assessment; nobody wants to be in a job by default, but we can and should do more to encourage women in particular to consider a change of career to flying.

Changing the culture — this will take longer. Young women (yes, specifically young women) need to be engaged in an effort to make an interest in flying more appealing to them. Flying clubs frankly need to do a much better job of banishing the clique and throwing their doors open to outsiders. Many are already doing well (and they tend also to have the best online presence too), but all should pay specific regard to communicating the benefits of flying to young women, as well as other groups typically poorly represented in our metier.

Role models are perhaps the most important factor in changing the way that people see the flying profession. easyJet photo.

Educate and inspire girls in schools. One of the highest priorities has to be for youngsters under the age of 7 to see women pilots in real life and talk to them. only then will we have a chance of normalising flying as a career for both genders.

OECD Education and Skills; UCL Institute of Education; TES; and the National Association of Head Teachers commissioned a survey which found, among other things:

  • Young children are disproportionately influenced by who they know and what they see over what they are told.
  • Fewer than 1% get to meet role models from the world of work visiting their school.

So, anything we can do to get women aviators into schools, we should be doing. The Aviatrix project is doing just that. If you’re a female pilot, please get in touch with them and offer some of your time to engage with youngsters in a school — you may change someone’s life.

The final thing we can do is exert pressure on all those perpetuating the male pilot stereotype. (Some) watch manufacturers are particularly bad for using aviation as a sales crutch where the pilots are exclusively men, and if women are featured at all they are fawning over the blokes. Companies need to be encouraged to get over this, as quickly as possible. So if you see it online, take them to task over it. Better still, vote with your feet and don’t buy products from companies with overtly misogynistic marketing. For a better example of positive female role models in aviation coming from a watch company, check out Bremont — Carey Lohrenz, one of their ambassadors, flew F-14s with the US Navy.

Carey Lohrenz in front of her former office. Check out her book. Carey Lohrenz photo.

The other perspective

I’ve made these points before. Occasionally people make counterpoints. They vary in the way they’re communicated but there are common themes…

The ‘special case’ argument. “It’s what you do in the interview and the assessment sim that matters. If the women are of a high enough standard, they will be selected.”

Nobody is advocating giving women a pass at the interview — least of all women applicants or their passengers — but you can’t be selected if you’re not there; and women aren’t, mostly because being a pilot wasn’t something they considered possible or desirable when they were young. They’ve spent most of their childhood and adolescence moving along an entirely different vector, and it’s going to be tough to change now, particularly to a job that is so specialist and widely regarded as unobtainable to begin with — and that’s before considering that they may never have met a female pilot themselves or even worse, met some of the male ones that I have!

The standards argument. If you set targets to recruit women specifically, you will drive the overall standard down because you’ll accept poorer quality female pilots over high quality male ones.

Without troubling ourselves with the breathtakingly arrogant assumption that the male pilot would necessarily be better than the female one, no scheme that I have seen has suggested targeting success at job interviews. The aim is to get more women TO the job interview in the first place.

And the aviation industry is missing out as a result because, sorry guys; a lot of those women would be better at flying planes than you. Or me. Getting MORE people to apply for a job can’t possibly REDUCE the likelihood of getting high quality recruits.

Men do not have the monopoly on the qualities possessed of a good pilot. You can’t even argue that they’re genetically predisposed to an advantage.

But this is not about gender bias at the job interview. If you think that’s what I’m arguing against, or for, you’ve not been paying attention. I don’t honestly believe that more men are pilots because the interview boards are biased. The women aren’t applying in the first place, because society keeps reinforcing the message: “being a pilot’s a cool job, but it’s not for you”.

If you’re a young man with aviation aspirations, you’re probably going to hear that a few times growing up too, especially if you grew up ‘outside’ aviation. If you’re a woman, that’s what the whole world is telling you every time you watch a film about flying; take a flight anywhere; see a crap watch commercial or go to a flying club.

The effort doesn’t start and finish with gender-specific recruitment drives or scholarships, it has to be tackled at source, before young women’s social norms are cemented and certainly before they have started to decide upon their career interests.

It’s not about positive discrimination, being ‘woke’ or even getting women to ‘pursue their dreams’, it’s about creating an environment where young women are as likely to dream about being a pilot as are young men.

Jon first flew in a glider aged seven, and after that he never wanted to do anything else. He has flown both helicopters and aeroplanes professionally, and in his spare time is a contributor to various aviation publications. He started Get Into Flying as a way to tell people what he's been saying for years. "If I can do it, you can too."

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