11 June 2012 | By Brad Cohen
In late May, a passenger on Brazil’s Trip Airlines decided that while he was willing to live in a country run by a woman, he should not have to fly in a plane controlled by one.
In the 78 years since Helen Richey became the first female commercial airline pilot in 1934, nearly every industry in the world has seen exponential advancement in career opportunities for women. Yet it seems that females still have trouble achieving equality in the cockpit.
According to estimates from the Federal Aviation Administration, as of 2010 only 6.7% of US pilots are female. Other organisations such as the International Society of Woman Airline Pilots (ISA) and Women in Aviation (WIA), estimate that only about 3% to 6% of the world’s 130,000 airline pilots — more than 40,000 of which are based in the US — are women. In some parts of the world, the number of female pilots borders on zero: Ghana, a country of 24 million, recently licensed its first female pilot. Comparatively, more than 80% of US flight attendants are women.
According to Jo Halverson, vice chairwoman of the ISA and an Airbus A320 first officer for United Airlines, the low numbers stem, in part, from the industry’s demanding schedule which requires a lot of time away from family. In addition, much of the world is generations behind the US and Europe in introducing maternity policies for female pilots.
Even in the US, Halverson said very little work is being done to make women comfortable in the cockpit. She called the climate at flight schools, where most students are young males, “dismissive and patronizing”, and said this is part of the reason that growth in US female pilots has been stagnant for more than a decade. In the 1960s, the number of female pilots grew from 3.6% of all pilots to 4.3%. Yet from 2002 to 2011, the number of female pilots in the US has only risen from 6.5% to 6.7%.
The 2010 Teaching Women to Fly Research Project, commissioned by the Wolf Aviation Fund, cited instructor-student communication issues and lack of female mentors among the top barriers that discourage women from learning to fly aeroplanes.
In a recent interview, Mireille Goyer, the founder of Women of Aviation Week (WAWW), agreed that little is being done to improve women’s comfort in the industry. To change that, WAWW recently began hosting events that introduce women to flying, and will list flight schools that are “perceived as women friendly” on their website. ISA and WIA offer flight-related scholarships to women and Embry Riddle Aeronautical University has started a female mentoring program.
While much of the world has a long way to go, Halverson said the current work environment in the US and Europe is good, and whatever sexism there is remains mostly under the radar.
“We’ve all experienced it,” Halverson said. “You don’t know sometimes if personality clash or if it’s because you’re a woman. But you do feel sometimes you have to be better than average just to be an average pilot.”