What's most remarkable about the lack of gender diversity among airline pilots is how persistent it has been. Despite plenty of talk about attracting more women into the role, they are still a tiny minority. Airlines need to do much more.
Tammie Jo Shults is commercial aviation’s latest hero. So why aren’t there more pilots like her?
The Southwest Airlines Co. captain, praised for her cool handling of a depressurization and emergency landing in Philadelphia Tuesday after the Boeing Co. 737’s engine blew apart mid-flight, is still an anomaly in the airline industry.
While women make up roughly half of cabin crew, among pilots that ratio slides to just 5.2 percent, according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots. There’s a larger share of women in the Saudi workforce or Indian boardrooms than in the cockpits of U.S. commercial planes.
What’s most remarkable about that statistic is how persistent it’s been. Amelia Earhart, Bessie Coleman, Pancho Barnes and Jean Batten first took to the skies almost a century ago. Chief executive officers Carolyn McCall and Jayne Hrdlicka rose to the top of Easyjet Plc and Qantas Airways Ltd.’s Jetstar carrier in, respectively, 2010 and 2012 — but women still make up just 5.8 percent of Easyjet’s pilots and 5 percent at Qantas.
The reasons typically cited for this disparity don’t come close to excusing it.
Pilots certainly spend long hours away from home — but that doesn’t create the same gender imbalance among cabin crew. Training as a pilot and maintaining a commercial pilot’s license can be expensive and time-consuming, typically requiring 1,500 hours of flight time at the outset and one take-off and landing every month after that — but long-hours cultures don’t hold women back to nearly such an extent in other careers, such as finance and politics.
Seniority among pilots also tends to correspond to hours spent in the air, so the hierarchy is likely to be dominated by older male employees long after change starts at the bottom. Still, if senior men skew hiring and promotions toward people who resemble them, that’s an issue of workplace discrimination and should be addressed as such.
In an industry where Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. ditched a skirts-only rule for women flight attendants just last month and Singapore Airlines Ltd. is still touting the Mad Men-esque charms of the “Singapore Girl,” it’s probably not all that surprising antediluvian attitudes persist.
As recently as 2010, Women in Aviation International’s Australian president, Tammy Augostin, recalls an instructor commenting that “If women were meant to fly airplanes, the skies would be pink.” She said: “Younger people are certainly very supportive, but there is still that older mindset there.”
Now is as good an opportunity as there’s been in years for change. With air travel booming and 637,000 more pilots needed over the next two decades, airlines already have a massive recruitment task ahead. Adding quotas and funding to encourage more women to join flight schools — as Qantas is doing with a commitment to double intake over the coming decade — should be seen as part and parcel of that process.
Airlines also need to do far more to improve their family policies, which typically reflect the priorities of the male-dominated unions who negotiate them and which in some countries lack even basic provision for paid parental leave.
This isn’t just about altruism and fairness. The skill of flying a modern commercial plane is in large part a matter of good decision-making under stress. Multiple studies over the years have shown women have faster reaction times than men and tend to take fewer risks, qualities that we would all like to see in our pilots.
There are sound self-interested reasons for carriers to redress the imbalance in the cockpit.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.
Subscribe to Skift Pro
Subscribe to Skift Pro to get unlimited access to stories like these ($30/month)Subscribe Now
Photo Credit: EasyJet's Lisa Humphrey (captain) and Maria Stone (first officer) set off on an all-female crewed flight from London Gatwick to Agadir. There are still far too few female pilots. EasyJet
Skift Global Forum Preview: Incoming Southwest CEO Robert Jordan on Pulling Off New Service to 18 Airports in 18 Months
Incoming Southwest Airlines CEO Robert Jordan sees the pandemic's road to recovery in four stages: Survive, stabilize, repair, and prosper. Right now, he says his airline is still in the stabilize phase.
Madhu Unnikrishnan, Skift | 7 days ago
Qantas Plans Vaccine Requirement for All International Flyers
Vaccine mandates are the next big thing for the travel industry with many companies requiring staff get their jabs. Now Qantas may be the first to take the logical next step with a mandate that passengers on international flights do the same.
Edward Russell, Skift | 2 weeks ago
U.S. Airlines Look to Holiday Boost as Delta Variant Delays Business Travel’s Recovery
The Delta variant has set the travel recovery back with most U.S. airlines eating humble pie after overly rosy outlooks in July. With the business travel recovery delayed at least three months, the industry hopes to counter the tide of bad news with some possible year-end, holiday cheer.
Edward Russell, Skift | 2 weeks ago