Where are the female pilots?

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airplane 2If you were one of the many Bates students who utilized air travel as a means of returning home for the holidays, consider the following: was the pilot of your plane a woman? When the plane took off from the runway and the anticipated “This is your captain speaking. We have now reached our cruising altitude…” sounded overhead, did the voice of the captain belong to a female? Statistically, the answer to this question is no. In fact, it’s likely that one is not able to conjure a memory of ever boarding a plane that was flown by a female pilot.

Women make up a mere five percent of the approximate 600,000 active airline pilots in the United States. What is even more remarkable is that, unlike other professions in which female representation has increased, the percentage of working female pilots is actually less than it was thirty years ago. A spike in the percentage of female pilots occurred in the second half of the 20th century, rising from just over 4,000 female pilots in 1960 to almost 27,000 in 1980.

But the surge of women in aviation seemed to hit a virtual standstill in the thirty years from 1980 to 2010; about 28,000 female pilots are working in the U.S. today, marking a very slight increase since 1980. Additionally, there are only 450 “airline captains” worldwide, or pilots that direct all of a flight’s crewmembers.

The underrepresentation of women in aviation can be explained in part through the difficult process required for becoming a pilot. Due to the fact that flight school is expensive, with an estimated price tag of $100,000 for each student, many commercial pilots obtain pilot certification through the military. But women are also incredibly outnumbered in the American military; only about 700 of the 14,000 current military pilots are female.

Not too long ago in our country’s history, numerous professional fields were predominantly male, however a variety of factors, including a cultural shift away from female domesticity, have promoted an increasing number of women in traditionally “male” occupations. In a time when we pride ourselves on gender progress and equality, we too often forget that some occupations still very much operate under a ceiling made of glass.

Women make up the majority of current American college students. Many suspect that a woman will soon serve as President of the United States. Competitive professions in medicine, law, journalism, and management have all experienced an increase in female-filled positions. But where are the female pilots?

If you have in fact been on a commercial flight with a female pilot, did you stop and note that her voice seemed out of place? Did the pilot’s status as a woman contradict a precipitated assumption that the voice would likely belong to that of a male? And furthermore, did the surprise of a female pilot cause you to feel at all unsafe or less secure than you would if the pilot was a man?

American Airlines pilot Angela Masson recalls an anecdote in a CNN report in which a male passenger approached her and explained that he would not be boarding her flight, as he suffered from fear of flying and he did not feel secure with a woman in the pilot’s seat. It’s distressing to think that many airline passengers might share the same sentiment, but with only five percent of airline pilots being women, most customers will never be faced with such a circumstance.

Coming across a female pilot might seem out of place only because it would disagree with all previous experiences and not the result of any rational reason for why women would not possess the same aptitude for directing an airplane.

The small fraction of females in aviation is a mark of professional realms that continue to be predominately male operated. The point of interest, however, is not simply a recognition of slanted gender statistics but rather an aspiration that perhaps, with time, a woman in a traditionally “male” profession such as aviation will not be regarded as something unusual.

It is important to acknowledge that not only are some aspects of our society still significantly gendered, but that these facets can only be altered when we allow our predetermined expectations to stand open to modification. There is no glaring explanation for why flight passengers have such a remote chance of encountering a woman flying a commercial airplane. What does exist, however, is the expectation that the pilot will be male.

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