My friend, Erika Armstrong, is an influencer and aviation expert. She writes extensively on LinkedIn and is a subject matter expert who is sought after for her knowledge and expertise about women. As many of you know, I like to research topics like executive presence and how it affects both genders' career progression in their respective industries. This is an intriguing look at why there are not more women in the cockpit. Enjoy! ~ Dr. EVD
Can you spot the two things wrong with that image? Well, there are actually three errors...
Yeah, 'cause this is what we look like when we're flying...
First, you will never see a woman wearing a mini-skirt in the cockpit. Do you realize how hard it is to get in there, even with pants on? You have to hang like a monkey and hold onto the overhead handle and ungracefully plop into your seat.
The second error is that for most little girls, the thought of becoming a pilot never crosses their mind. Sure, there are exceptions to every rule, but the girls/women about to graduate from high school, have probably not been exposed to the idea. It's getting better, the momentum is moving mountains, but we still have a long way to go.
The third error, is that even though we are super women and do whatever a man can do, we're often also moms, and that is one thing a man still physically can't do. Aviation, by nature of the beast, requires extensive time away from home. That too will never change. Some schedules are better than others, but it requires extensive time to get there!
I can write the words, but unless you actually sit in the captain’s seat of a commercial airliner or corporate jet, no one can know the sublime pleasure of this all-encompassing life experience.
Even as an author, my words will always fail to do justice to all the stories, vivid characters, personality changing moments, and pure passion of piloting. Aviation is one of the most rewarding and challenging careers anyone can have while at the same time, it forces heart-wrenching decisions unlike any other industry and those decisions affect men and women pilots differently.
Yes, men and women are gloriously different and yet, either can accomplish the same goals. Both can be pilots, but some men aren’t cut out to be pilots, just like some women aren’t cut out to be pilots. It has nothing to do with their gender; it has everything to do with individual skills and ambitions. The reality is that there aren’t a lot of women pilots because not a lot of women want to be pilots. Women have proven to the world that we can hurl a piece of machinery through the air at a high rate of speed just as gloriously as a man, or handle an emergency with the focus and calm of a Buddhist Monk (thank you Tammie Jo), but it’s just not that high on our list of priorities. If a woman wants to be a pilot, she can be a pilot, so why are only +/- 4% of all ATPs issued to women, and how does our society change that statistic?
With a confluence of factors, there is an irrefutable qualified pilot shortage looming. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has been requested to research this phenomenon by influential aviation stakeholder organizations. Among the extensive list of concerns is the general question of why Private Pilot certificates have declined by 10,000 each in the past few years? But more specifically, why isn’t anyone asking: Where are all the women? By simply asking the specific question, we may be able to change perceptions.
One of the many answers is as simple as the lack of role models and mentors. The concept of becoming a pilot is too abstract without specifically meeting and talking to someone in the industry. While I was growing up, the most famous female icon I knew of disappeared into the Pacific Ocean, so ending up in the bottom of the deep blue sea wasn’t necessarily on my list of wants or desires. I never knew women pilots existed, so how could I ever include that in my thought process or perspective of possible career choices? The next generation sees and knows, so we will see a change, it just takes a generation, or two.
I also didn’t immediately embrace the idea of flocking to a high-stress, high-demand job that requires long absences from home. My addiction started unintentionally when I got a job working the front desk of a busy FBO in Minnesota. Since I was in the right place at the right time, I met a series of mentors that propelled me forward. I was guided by their enthusiasm as well as their knowledge, but only two of them were women. The aviation addiction begins by just being at an airport, so enticing women into the industry in general will help guide them onto a path into the cockpit. There are millions of jobs in the aviation world so getting them into any supporting role is a great way to get started.
My aviation desires began with dreams of flying machines and traveling the world. I had yet to learn about crew scheduling, furloughs, junior assignments, seniority, commuting, and base changes. I learned quickly that it requires sacrifice and self-discipline and those who thrive in commercial aviation are pilots who can compartmentalize career from family (and have very supportive spouses if you have a family).
We might as well admit that women, by design and desire, are still the primary family caregivers. Political correctness aside; it’s just the way it is and we have to acknowledge it’s a factor in the cycle. We’re good at it and it comes more naturally. There are millions of men who are just as good if not better at child rearing than women, but they’re not often pilots. And of course, that’s the catch of being in aviation. This will crinkle the ideology of feminism, but the reality in aviation is that you cannot have it "all" (the whole package - kids, pets, house, etc. and the SERENITY of knowing that when you're flying, everything is okay at home), unless you have a great spouse who can deal with everything when you're working. This applies to both men and women so make sure your future spouse understands the demands of your job. This is hard to do when you're young and feel like there is nothing you can't conquer!
For far too many women, it’s a fabulous ten to fifteen year career until “it” happens. Your schedule goes haywire, you miss your child smiling, walking, birthdays, holidays, and just being home. A mechanical problem in a foreign land means you are three days late getting home…how do you find daycare to handle that kind of schedule? It’s not that men don’t feel this way about it; it’s just that more women are more willing to sacrifice their careers to be the stay-at-home or work on the ground parent.
Our culture has not caught up with its ideology, but I will firmly state that it’s headed in the right direction. I gratefully and deeply thank all those men who watched me walk in the cockpit, never having flown with a woman before, and treated me just like everyone else. Despite what they might have thought internally, the majority was respectful, professional, and eventually got used to the idea that the chick in their cockpit was just trying to earn a living like they were. They got used to me being there and thankfully forgot that I was anything but a pilot and in return, I learned a deep appreciation for the ability of men and women to work together and thrive as a team.
When the airlines and charter companies recognize their enormous return on investment by creating an environment that acknowledges that pilots also have families, which is important to work/life balance, then you will see more women coming to aviation and more woman and men staying…but it will take time. It will take mentors encouraging women AND men to join the ranks and it will take company executives to create a supportive business culture that recognized the stress this career puts on family.
It is too often with heavy hearts that many seasoned pilots cannot enthusiastically recommend this magnificent profession and in the end, women are cognizant that even though we’ve broken through the glass ceiling in the sky, we’re still the ones who have to pick up all the broken glass...
From the front desk of a busy FBO, to the captain's seat of a commercial airliner, Erika Armstrong has experienced everything aviation has to offer. She is also an aviation professor at MSU Denver, Director of Instructional Design at Advanced Aircrew Academy and author of A CHICK IN THE COCKPIT. If you want to rant about her sexist story, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.