Why is it that only 6% of pilots globally are female and what can we as an industry do to change this?
During the Second World War women were responsible for flying 80% of all ferrying missions, delivering over 12,000 aircraft between them, so why is it that in the year 2020 – almost 80 years later – women only account for 6% of all pilots globally? After the war was over and the men returned from overseas, women were expected to return to their previous roles in the home and it was almost as though their incredible work in the air force had been forgotten. It wasn’t until the late 1960’s/early 1970’s when the world of aviation saw their first female commercial pilot and despite numbers growing steadily, the industry still remains one of the least diverse, with careers such as law and medicine seeing a huge increase in the recruitment of people from minority groups over recent years.
As a little girl I had never come across a female pilot so growing up it was never a career I had even considered, mostly due to lack of exposure. It’s difficult for someone to dream of being something that they’ve never seen so it’s critical for us to inspire children’s imaginations from a young age and put female pilots out there as visible role models in an attempt to educate young girls that it’s a fantastic career option for them too. It wasn’t until I was 15 years old before I realised that becoming a commercial pilot was my dream but I was hesitant to research any further at first as I was under the false impression that I’d had my epiphany too late. To me it felt as though anyone I’d ever met who aspired to fly planes for a living had come to this grand conclusion when they were in infancy and had been obsessed with all things aviation since then, leaving me feeling as though I didn’t want it enough because that didn’t fit the way I’d decided my future career. When I began my training at the age of 19 I was shocked to discover that almost every one of my female peers had experienced this exact same feeling and in fact its common for women to choose their careers later in life than most men.
We need to teach our girls that it’s never too late to pursue a goal and to do that we must stop creating these invisible barriers; unfortunately it’s still not uncommon that schools and careers advisors are under informed on this subject and it’s not unheard of for people in positions of power to attempt to dissuade their female students to pursue what they wrongly perceive to be a “mans job”. Companies such as The Female Lead are taking fantastic strides towards encouraging schools to look out for their young women and help them find their voices; “The Female Lead Society” is a school’s programme that helps shape discussions around female representation and ambition. The programme is made of 30-45 minute sessions, focusing on a range of topics from careers, feminism, friendships, money and lots more.
One of the most regular comments I receive from people upon discovering I am a pilot is “Oh you must be ridiculously clever”. There’s a common misconception that to become a pilot you have to be great at maths and physics and you need a degree, this isn’t the case. Almost all flight schools now only require you to have 5 GCSEs Level 4/C Grade or above including English, Maths and Science (ideally Physics) and you’ll find a lot of students begin training straight after leaving school. It’s certainly not necessary to undertake a university degree before attending flight school, though many do so they can have a “back up plan”. Personally I spent a year working as cabin crew and gaining some industry – as well as life – experience before embarking upon my training as I didn’t wish to incur more costs by attending university and racking up a student loan on top of training fees! STEM subjects have always traditionally been viewed as “boys subjects” but with the help of schools enthusing girls to show an interest in these subjects we will see a rise in females interested in aviation and, as a result, a career as a pilot.
Another factor in why we’re not seeing more women consider flying is a lack of information regarding maternity support and raising a family. For decades women have worked as flight attendants alongside bringing up children so why should that be any different as a pilot? Airlines now offer a range of part time contracts allowing pilots more flexible working patterns making it easier to have a good work life balance. As well as this companies are beginning to offer better maternity benefits and support for their employees looking to have a baby, and in 2019 BALPA launched its industry wide “Baby on Board” campaign in a bid to make airlines take note and put an end to statutory maternity pay and encourage those airlines lagging behind to re-evaluate their policies.
Even today there is still a stigma that women are less capable of flying planes than their male counterparts and that comes largely from out-dated stereotypes and prejudices. Women undergo the exact same selection process, training and testing as men so there is absolutely no reason why we should be less competent in control of an aircraft. This point of view is held less so by fellow pilots and airlines but still appears to be an issue with passengers who have potentially never flown with a female pilot and so fear the unknown. You’re never going to change the opinion of everyone but by exposing these people to more and more women in the flight deck and attempting to narrow the divide within the industry the comments will be fewer and far between. The thought of dealing with negative views can be off putting when considering career options but with a strong support network of like-minded colleagues it can certainly take away some of the anxiety. Something that I found extremely beneficial during training was spending time with the girls I was training alongside, as you’ll often find they’re experiencing the same stresses and concerns as you. I’ve made friends for life through the industry and the worries I had when starting training about being the odd one out and feeling isolated were squashed almost instantly when I realised there’s a huge array of incredible women all willing to offer advice and a helping hand on any topic.
Potentially the largest contributor as to why we see fewer women, and minority groups as a whole, in the flight deck is down to the cost of training. With fees exceeding £100,000 in some cases its no surprise the industry is struggling to attract a diverse group of people, with women being less likely to take risks than men particularly where money is concerned. Although there are a few schemes around to help out with funding, such as the British Women Pilots’ Association (BWPA) who offer a number of different scholarships each year, in recent years we’ve seen fewer airlines offering sponsored schemes and the price of training rising. There are certainly airlines that have been very vocal in displaying a desire to increase their number of female pilots and a few initiatives have been born from this; the easyJet Amy Johnson initiative launched in 2015 with the goal of increasing their percentage of female pilots to 20% by 2020 and Wizz Air’s Cabin Crew to Captain programme aimed at supporting employees with their career goals to become pilots, as well as to promote gender equality in the aviation profession with a pledge for 25% of their pilots to be female by 2030. It’s important to note that these schemes have not been developed to discriminate against or exclude our male colleagues (everyone is allowed to apply, not just women) but rather to entice more women to apply for the role in the first place because if you’re excluding 50% of potential applicants from the beginning you’re not hiring the best people possible.
If completing training in under 2 years isn’t necessarily a priority for you and you’re prepared to take a little more time or even if you’re looking to continue working whilst you train, a fantastic way to keep costs down is by pursuing the modular training route. Modular training allows you to choose where and when you complete your training, giving you the benefit of being able to budget appropriately, rather than spending a large upfront sum like that required for integrated courses.
It’s clear that there isn’t just one factor to the gender balance problem in the industry and there’s not one singular resolution to solve it either; however there are plenty of realistic and achievable things we can be doing to increase the global percentage. We have a responsibility to inspire our girls from a young age and show them that becoming a pilot is a viable career option. We need to educate our educators and encourage them to promote the career to girls and boys alike. We should be providing little girls with female role models and more than anything we should be making the career more accessible to everyone, not just those that have the money to pay for it. It’s going to be a long road but with the progress we’ve already made and the awareness continuing to grow, it’s more than achievable that we can begin to close the gap and start get people to realise that girls fly too!