Editor’s Note: Some of the active-duty pilots interviewed for this article were reticent to be identified because they may face negative repercussions from their airlines or unions.
By Kathryn B. Creedy
The heroic save of Southwest 1380 by Captain Tammie Jo Shults after an uncontained engine failure brought women pilots into focus, prompting many to wonder why there are so few. Clearly, women have the right stuff.
Defining the problem is simple – societal attitudes toward women and industry failure to address these attitudes. Equally important, is the fact that the job itself is a deterrent given work rules forged 70 or more years ago despite work rule changes afforded other work groups. Industry and unions shoulder much of the blame having lacked the political will to accommodate changing workforce needs, not just for women but for the entire pilot corps.
Most wouldn’t think societal attitudes a problem but a recent study reveals otherwise, showing pilots who do not meet the white male stereotype less trustworthy. This is very troubling and shocking.
Despite Schultz’s performance, around 51% of those questioned by Sunshine.co.uk, the online travel agent, said they were less likely to trust a female pilot, according to a 2021 Daily Telegraph article. Just 14% said they would feel safer with a woman at the controls, while a quarter said the pilot gender did not matter and 9% said they were unsure.
“Of those who said they would rather have a male pilot,” concluded the study. “32% said they believed ‘male pilots are more skilled,’ while 28% questioned the ability of female pilots to handle pressure.”
Tell that to Schultz and any number of combat pilots.
The fact is the industry is reaping the rewards of centuries of convincing the world women are inferior. They must now undo the damage and convince the world women are equal to the job, whatever job that is, because they have proven themselves to be.
Comparisons between US airlines and those around the world paint a dismal picture. India leads the world with 12.4% of its pilot corps being women compared to about 5.6% in the US. Ireland and South Africa each have about 9%.
Safety is at Issue
Everyone knows crew resource management (CRM) is a key ingredient in safety. But the current dynamic threatens safety, argues Captain Kimberly Perkins, putting an urgent spin on the entire issue. (Safety will be covered in Part II).
Having Schultz and others as role models is great but as industry continues to wring its hands about the dearth of women pilots, unions and airlines must look to themselves as the problem. Not having kept pace with the changing workforce, they failed to make improvements necessary to attract and retain pilots of either gender.
Since work rules were established more women have entered the workforce and labor demands for a better work/life balance became critical issues for society. Without wholesale reform, airline and union barriers remain a top challenge. (Unions will be discussed in Part II)
Seeing the progress made in other fields indicates something is really wrong that 33% of astronauts are women, according to the International Association of Airline Pilots (ISA+21) and women pilots make up only 5% of the global pilot corps. ISA+21 represents over 600 members representing 90 airlines in 35 countries.
“Sixty years ago, other fields including medicine, law, business and engineering were male industries,” said Captain C. “Today, they’ve had steady increases of women in leadership, while the airlines have been stagnant for decades. We can do the same in the aviation industry by improving family policies, increasing outreach to young women and encouraging leadership participation.”
Female CEOs represent 19% of total Aerospace & Defense CEOs in the US, according to a study Soaring Through the Glass Ceiling: Taking the Global Aviation and Aerospace Industry to New Heights Through Diversity & Inclusion sponsored by the International Aviation Women’s Association and executed by Korn Ferry. While this is well ahead of female CEOS across all industry at 5%, only 3% of airlines have women CEOs said the report. Future Aviation/Aerospace Workforce News compiled the first list of women executives in aviation and aerospace.
In the US, according to studies by Captain Perkins, pre-Covid, women represented 46% of the total US labor force; but, a mere 5.6% in the pilot workforce with only 2% captains. The fact the needle moved so little since Bonnie Tiburzi Caputo became the first woman to fly for a US commercial airline in 1973, reflects the task ahead.
“Women are drastically underrepresented in aviation – a situation that has not improved over time like other STEM fields,” said Perkins. “The reason lies in small fragments of a much larger cultural issue [that prevents the airline industry from effectively recruiting more women pilots].”
Airlines Benefit from Changing Work Policies
What is interesting about what women pilots seek is the fact it is also good for the bottom line in that it increases retention and avoids the high cost of hiring and training. More importantly numerous studies show how diversity is important to the bottom line.
“Consumers and employees are now looking for more than Corporate Social Responsibility,” a recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) reported. “They’re looking for Corporate Social Justice. Consumers and other stakeholders want companies that see social good as a necessity, not just a marketing strategy. It’s up to companies to respond to this new challenge. Research shows companies with effective Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs are more profitable than those that aren’t.”
The World Economic Forum agrees, saying diversity and sustainability are key parts of, not only consumer, but investor strategy. Consumers will pay a premium to companies echoing their values, according to recent studies showing sustainability, and now, social justice, drive premium results. The Carlysle Group found companies with higher diversity have nearly 12% more earnings growth per year than the average company that lacked diversity, according to Nasdaq.
Workplace Culture is the Problem
Perkins rejects the notion this is a pipeline problem. “While there certainly are fewer women training to be pilots, women also face gender-unique social pressures, double standards and systemic barriers that deter their entrance into aviation,” she said.
In a report released by Women in Aviation International, Associate Professor for the University of Nebraska Aviation Institute Dr. Rebecca Lutte, detailed how women viewed aviation/aerospace. The report Women in Aviation: A Workforce Report, is extremely important since these perceptions constitute a considerable barriers to diversifying the workforce.
- Women perceived aviation to be an adventurous, fun career.
- They saw it as a way to prove their personal abilities.
- They saw it as a challenging career.
- But they also perceived it as a good-ole-boy network.
What is remarkable in the 21st Century, their perceptions remain true although women aviation maintenance technicians report enthusiastic mentoring from male colleagues and cite the rise of women to maintenance operations management at United, which also leads US airlines in women pilots, and Alaska.
“The results indicate that workplace culture, described as good-ole-boy network, is still a deterrent to the ability to recruit and retain women in aviation,” said Lutte in her report.
“In a 2019 study, 24% of career female pilots said bias and discrimination was the number one reason the industry can’t recruit women,” Perkins added. “A second study shows a perceived negative culture was the second biggest deterrent for young girls considering a career in aviation (behind costs). Twenty seven percent of women pilots surveyed said ending bias and discrimination was the most important factor in retaining women in the industry (behind schedule predictability).”
While one could argue the numbers represent small minorities, they cannot be discounted since the industry needs to tap every under-represented group in order to populate its workforce. Listening to these women provides important clues to the significant barriers that sometimes force them to quit. They cite the lack of women in airline operations management. This is changing given the appointment of women to key operations posts in aviation maintenance, although women continue to be sorely lacking in pilot and flight operations management.
Antiquated Work Rules
Interestingly, Air India leads the world in the number of women pilots. The question is what is it doing that more industrialized nations are not?
Women pilots cite the inexplicable resistance to changing work rules to reflect what flight attendants have had for years, saying it hampers recruitment. They also cite unsuccessful efforts to gain accommodations for biological differences which, if ignored, risk serious health complications.
“It’s hard because of the nature of the job,” Retired Delta Captain Kathryn McCullough said. “Young women who want families believe that being a pilot means too much time away from home but look at the thousands of flight attendants who are mothers. The difference is, their work rules have more flexibility like job sharing, better leave options and shorter schedules.”
The difference also show that for airlines and unions it is all about the numbers, not equity.
Perkins reported that ignoring soft issues is also to blame. “Soft issues are human issues,” she explained, noting they affect both men and women pilots. “They can include morale at the office, interpersonal relationships, the ability to approach management, a good work/life balance, sense of worth in the work product and the nebulous feeling of happiness at work. Soft issues are harder to measure quantitatively since they are subjective, yet they play a significantly important qualitative role in determining where people want to work. The answer to the why-are-there-so-few-female-pilots question lives in this piece of the pie. It is time we address the problems here in the hope of sweetening that slice.”
Perkins pointed to the implicit bias that women are meant to give up their careers in order to become the primary caregiver for children. “Implicit biases are more harmful to gender equality because they are insidious, more prevalent and seemingly socially acceptable,” she explained. “They perpetuate age-old stigmas and stereotypes that women have been fighting against for years.”
Covid put women’s issues front and center because so many have left the workforce because their caregiving burden is so much higher than for men.
Numerous press reports showed women accounted for half the 10 million jobs lost to Covid-19 while accounting for less than half the workforce, according to the US Department of Labor. More than 2.5 million women left the labor force between February 2020 and January of this year, compared to 1.8 million men, prompting Vice President Kamala Harris to call it a national emergency.
Seniority Seen as Barrier
Seniority which governs a pilot’s entire career is also seen as a barrier, making this an economic equity issue while revealing how deep the issues extend. Key to the flexible schedule needed by working parents, it means remaining in a lower paid position on smaller aircraft, holding women back from pursuing career goals such as larger aircraft which pay better. When a pilot moves up, they lose both seniority and the flexibility they need.
“It’s a huge trade-off between seniority and money,” Captain H said, “and a very difficult balancing act.”
It is certainly a barrier to equality, said Perkins who reported in 2020 women are three times more likely to bypass a captain upgrade because it would reduce schedule predictability.