1930s female aviator Jean Batten (Picture: Getty)

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What’s behind the lack of female pilots?

A shockingly small proportion of commercial pilots are women. Anna James looks at the history of women in aviation to find out why

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By Anna James on

During the Second World War, female pilots were allowed to join the war effort, but they were required to report the times and lengths of their periods, so the effects of menstruating on flying could be studied. In the US, women applying for flying lessons had to submit their gynaecological records. Menstruation has never yet been deemed the cause of any flying accident in history. 

Today, no such things are required of female pilots or flight students and yet it is still a job dominated by men. In the UK, just under six per cent of pilots are women, with the number dropping to around three per cent globally. Can you remember the last time you heard a captain’s announcement in a woman’s voice on a plane? Or saw an advert featuring a suave woman captain surrounded by sexy male flight attendants? 

Can you remember the last time you heard a captain’s announcement in a woman’s voice on a plane? Or saw an advert featuring a suave woman captain surrounded by sexy male flight attendants?

To be a pilot, you need to be intelligent, responsible and calm. You need to be good with technology, science and maths. It pays well (a pilot’s starting salary in the UK is around £38,000), but also requires a fair bit of money and time to train – it costs between £40,000 and £120,000 to get the various licences and flight hours needed to become a commercial airline pilot. None of these requirements is linked to gender or race in any scientific way and yet, of course, it’s not that simple in real life. Women still struggle against old clichés about being anxious or hysterical, and myths about female brains being naturally inclined to caring jobs are still perpetrated. A study just this week among the biology undergraduates at the University of Washington showed male students ranking their male peers as more knowledgeable than the women in the class, even when their grades proved otherwise. 

Myriam Adnani, the first female Muslim pilot in Europe

Meanwhile, around the world, women are using literal flying to do some symbolic soaring. Last year, Myriam Adnani became the first female Muslim pilot in Europe, and black Saudi Arabian pilot Nawal al-Hawsawi is one of only three Saudi Arabian women pilots – the other two are anonymous. Al-Hawsawi trained to fly in the US, but is forbidden from using her licence in her hometown of Mecca, although she’s a supporter of King Abdullah and has expressed hopes that he will lift the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia. She’s a marriage counsellor by day, and has been outspoken about issues of racism, sexism and domestic violence. She’s gained quite a following on Twitter, but this has also drawn abuse with it for her unapologetic views, her pilot’s licence and her interracial marriage. Currently, Al-Hawsawi is living in Cleveland with her second husband, working towards qualifying as a flight instructor so she can teach other Muslim women to fly.

Next month, the sixth annual Women of Aviation Worldwide Week takes place. American pilot Mireille Goyer created the week to combat her frustrations with the airline industry’s lukewarm attempts to attract women: “The industry excluded women for decades and, when that negative attitude was halted by the feminist movement, the industry did little to engage women. As of now, our major challenge is not women’s lack of interest – it is the industry’s lack of interest in opening their doors to women wholeheartedly.” Keen to be inspirational in more than just an abstract way, the programme offers scholarships for women wanting to learn to fly, prizes for girls trying flying lessons, as well as official credentials for businesses that get involved in promoting aviation specifically to girls and women.

Women still struggle against old clichés about being anxious or hysterical, and myths about female brains being naturally inclined to caring jobs are still perpetrated

Airlines are also making more attempts to de-gender flying as a career, with EasyJet and British Airways recently announcing schemes to up their intake of women. Dave Thomas, BA’s chief pilot, says: “We’re after the best person for the job and, if we’re only looking at half the population, then we’re clearly missing a trick”, neatly skewering the old myth that women get too many jobs due to affirmative action. They’ve launched the British Airways Future Pilots Programme, including extensive research into why women aren’t considering flying as a career (the most common answer was a general lack of awareness and visibility of female pilots) and events where female pilots visit schools and colleges to talk to the next generation about flying. Kat Woodruffe, a senior first officer for BA, says, “The important thing is to get the message out there that being a pilot is a fantastic career for women – it needs to become something that is the norm.” 

Woodruffe is keen to emphasise that she’s never felt that she’s experienced any sexism on the job and that the flying world is rigidly fair, with promotion based on flight hours and tests passed: “It’s important to shatter any myths that women struggle in the aviation industry – we are all trained to exactly the same high standard and BA has the same expectations of all of us. While we may be a more unusual sight in the briefing room, I’ve never felt that I’ve been treated any different and am certainly never self-conscious.” Perhaps predictably, the problem seems to lie then with the underlying messages that men naturally want to achieve, and women to care, and that women get hysterical where men get angry.

It’s been suggested that the military history of flight contributes to the problem too – and indeed the RAF didn’t have its first female pilot until 1990. In fact, 1930s aviator Jean Batten – who is the subject of a new novel by Fiona Kidman – had her record-breaking flying career put to a halt when she wasn’t permitted to fly during the Second World War and her plane was requisitioned.

1930s aviator Jean Batten (Picture: Getty)

Batten’s story is fascinating: she grew up in New Zealand in a family of wavering fortunes, and she has been painted as a kind of winged gold digger due to several engagements but never marrying. She was engaged to two men who enjoyed the idea of a wife like Batten who was beautiful, charismatic and famous, but these relationships stalled after the record attempts they funded failed and Batten continuously put her ambitions as a pilot above settling down, determined to set records. In her own words: “In flying, I found the freedom to roam the earth; I knew I was destined to be a wanderer.” 

Before I read Kidman’s novel, I would have struggled to name a female pilot apart from Amelia Earhart and now I am amazed at the incredible achievements of women that seem to have dissolved from the pages of history. Goyer says, “It saddens me that even women in the industry are not aware of women’s rich aviation history – women’s achievements are rarely as celebrated as men’s.” For Goyer, Jean Batten was a pioneer: “She stood up and demonstrated that women are just as skilled and competent as men and can contribute to the advancement of aviation. By doing so, she blazed trails to facilitate the advancement of all women.” Woodruffe feels similarly indebted to Batten: “She had the most amazing, dynamic and ballsy life – she never seemed to give up in the face of adversity. She went to exceptional lengths to prove that women are every bit as physically and mentally capable as men.”  


American aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart (Picture: Getty)


These women’s achievements are staggering, but perhaps soon they will seem less remarkable because it is the norm for woman to be achieving such feats. Or just the norm for women to be flying commercial planes, so that a captain’s announcement from a woman isn’t anomalous. The practical, real experiences of historical and modern female pilots are about hard work and determination, about finding ways in and getting the hours in. As Amelia Earhart said: “Women should do for themselves what men have already done – occasionally what men have not done – thereby establishing themselves as persons, and perhaps encouraging other women toward greater independence of thought and action."

@acaseforbooks

1930s female aviator Jean Batten (Picture: Getty)
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