Picture a pilot. Is that pilot a man? If so, you’re probably right. Men make up 95% of all the pilots in America. Five decades of recruiting efforts have raised the percentage of female pilots from 3.5% in the 1960s to 5% today.
I’m one of the them. Organizations have been formed to recruit, train and mentor women in this field, but despite these efforts the numbers remain dismal. The past five decades shows us that the industry trajectory for gender parity is centuries away. If moralistic reasons weren’t enough to jump aboard the gender-parity train, perhaps fiscal motivations can compel you.
Despite the future-is-female campaigns and Rosie the Riveter posters, women have not gravitated toward piloting at any substantial rate. As an industry, women make up nearly 30% of non-pilot jobs. But, a woman in aviation is twice as likely to be an aerospace engineer than a pilot and five times as likely to be an air traffic controller.
Female pilots make up 12% of the student-pilot population. As they progress in their career, that percentage dips to 6% at an intermediate level (commercial-pilot license) and dwindles to just 4% at the highest rung of the career ladder. Even when the recruitment does attract women through the flight-deck door, something within the industry turns them away.
As a Seattle-based female captain with almost two decades of flying experience, I have watched women leave the industry at varying stages of their career, but almost always for the same reasons: the industry has poor quality-of-life policies and is not family-friendly. While family care should not be a gendered-role, women, worldwide, are responsible for 75 percent of the unpaid labor (care and domestic work), which helps explains why women are missing from the flight deck.
The aviation-industry structure disproportionately favors men, not maliciously, but because it was built by men for men years ago. That status quo worked for decades, but it is failing us now. The pilot shortage is real. Airlines are parking planes and canceling flights due to a lack of crew. Boeing’s CEO estimates that the pilot shortage is one of the industry’s biggest challenges and predicts a need of 800,000 new pilots within the next two decades. Aside from the moral obligations to advocate for gender parity, we now have financial reasons to recruit more women.
But recruiting alone is not enough. It is time for the aviation industry to restructure through an inclusive lens. Paid family leave, child-care allowances, tuition reimbursement and schedule-predictability policies should become the industry norm. Such initiatives will retain both women and men while also recruiting more aviators into the pilot pipeline.
The industry already has a lot to offer, such as unique schedules, salaries above $100,000 after a few years, and, of course, the opportunity to see the world with a pretty amazing office view. If the industry would adopt more quality-of-life initiatives as standard practice, it would not have to hard-sell new recruits. Simple solutions and revolutionary restructuring are obtainable, but it will take all of us to challenge the status quo.
Airlines could offer more day-trip-only schedules and industry agencies could advocate for unconscious bias training to be included in crew resource management training. Committees within the industry must focus on diversity and inclusivity initiatives. Such a restructure may seem controversial, but the industry already has gone through a major transformation. There is precedence that the industry can adapt to restructure and thrive.
Modernity has transformed not only the airplanes themselves, but the meaning of what defines a “good” pilot and the skills necessary for the job. Technological advancements have yielded nearly self-sufficient flying computers, yet they lack the human social skills necessary to function in a collaborative, crew environment. The ability to rationalize, empathize and evaluate qualitatively are the “soft skills” necessary to work in a fast-paced, multi-crew environment.
Airlines know the importance of these soft skills, which is why they include them in their hiring criteria along with piloting experience and education. One’s emotional intelligence is no longer a trait only for managers, but a metric used to determine if a potential new-hire is a good fit with the company’s culture. The skills needed to aviate have been weighted by a modern scale.
So, what does this mean for women?
It means that women are missing from the flight deck because of socially constructed barriers. The good news: We can fix this. We’ve seen technological advancements transform aircraft and improve the very definition of what makes for a “good” pilot. Now, it is the industry’s responsibility to transform policy so we can recruit and retain more pilots and reverse the pilot shortage. The overhaul of the industry must include re-evaluating the structure through a more inclusive lens with family-friendly and quality-of-life initiatives.
The heyday of the industry doesn’t have to be the glory days of Pan Am. The best of the industry is still ahead of us, but we can’t get there without all becoming advocates for gender parity.