Female pilots very much in minority: British report
Jan. 14, 2014, London, U.K. - When two children, a six-year-old girl and a slightly older boy, visited her flight deck last week, British Airways pilot Aoife Duggan asked if they would like to fly planes too. The boy said yes but the girl demurred, saying: "I think I'd like to be an air hostess – boys are pilots." A surprised Duggan says: "I was like, 'No! Come and sit in my seat, wear my hat.' "
January 14, 2014 By The Guardian
Four decades after the first female pilot started work for a
commercial airline, there are still relatively few women sitting in
Duggan's seat. Of the 3,500 pilots employed by British Airways, just 200
are women, yet the airline still employs the highest proportion of
female pilots of any UK airline. Globally, around 4,000 of the 130,000
airline pilots are women, according to the
International Society of Women Airline Pilots. Fewer still are captains – worldwide, there are around 450.
much has changed since Yvonne Pope Sintes became Britain's first
commercial airline captain in 1972? Struggling to explain why so few
women have followed her, she suggests domestic responsibilities. "Women
are just as good as men, but they seem to have more domestic issues and
not all of them want to devote themselves to a full-time job."
After publishing her book, Trailblazer in Flight,
late last year, she says: "I actually met someone, just a few months
ago, who said he didn't know that there were any women pilots. I
couldn't believe it."
When Sintes, now 83, started her career,
airlines actively barred women, and although she was determined, it took
her nearly two decades from joining the airline industry to making it as a commercial pilot.
by watching the planes while growing up near Croydon airport, she tried
to join the RAF after school but they wouldn't take women. So she
became a flight attendant and gained her private pilot licence with the
Airways Aero Club, which offered flying lessons to airline staff. After
she qualified as an instructor, she became an air traffic controller.
She says her male colleagues "didn't like me at all" – they thought she
was just doing it to prove a point as one of only two female air traffic
control workers in the country. Airlines did not accept women as
commercial pilots at the time: "I was told it was not their policy and
so it continued for a while."
Eventually, in 1965, she became a
pilot with Morton Air Services, one of the early British airlines, and
then a captain with Dan-Air. At Morton, she says, around half of her
colleagues were hostile to the idea of a woman: "Someone actually said
they'd resign if a woman joined. Unfortunately, he didn't." Later, it
was the passengers who exhibited prejudice."The men always looked
slightly taken aback. The stewardesses had a lovely time watching their
reactions. The female passengers were initially a bit scared."
to Aoife Duggan and her older sister Cliodhna, who is also a pilot with
British Airways, reactions to their gender – either negative, or just
simple surprise – are more likely to come from passengers than
colleagues. Only a couple of years ago, at her previous job for an
airline in Asia, says Aoife, one man took one look at her and her female
co-pilot and got off the plane. "In Vietnam or China quite often you'd
get staff at the airport who would rather speak to the male person on
the flight deck [regardless of rank]. I think it's because they're not
used to seeing women in positions of power."
Cliodhna says she
still sees some passengers' surprise. "We've had pretty awful weather
My last landing was in Gatwick last week and it was
particularly turbulent… one of the passengers, as they were getting
off said: 'Oh my god, you look so small, I can't believe you just landed
this giant plane.'
"I think a lot of passengers, especially older
ones, have the image of a pilot being a man in his 50s, so when they
see a young woman, they seem surprised. I find it's often women who say
something, rather than men."
For both women, flying was a part of their childhood – their mother
was a flight attendant, and their father was an instructor who went on
to become an airline pilot. They grew up around the flying club. "There
were some women at the club," says Cliodhna. "I was aware that there
were women flying and I didn't see my gender as a bar." Aoife, seven
years younger, grew up seeing her older sister's career path and decided
Why do they think so few women go into flying? "A lot
of the time it's a matter of younger girls not being made aware that
it's a career option open to them," says Aoife. "It's not the kind of
thing people talk about in schools. You get young boys who say they want
to be a pilot or an astronaut, whereas girls are not encouraged that
way. And if they're not told from a young age that it's a possibility
then they don't keep hold of that idea."
The current crop of
female pilots have little time for those who think that the hours and
time away from home put women off a career as a commercial pilot. "It's
the same working lifestyle as cabin crew and we have 15,000 cabin crew,
the majority of whom are female," says Cliodhna. And pilots,
particularly as their careers progress, have a degree of flexibility
over the days or routes they work, she adds.
Katherine Hodge, 37,
started her first airline job in 2005 and has been a pilot with Virgin
for the past year. She says she has only ever experienced "positive
comments and big smiles. I've never had a negative reaction."
2009, the advertising watchdog received 29 complaints from people saying
Virgin's TV advert – featuring glamorous female flight attendants
flanking a male pilot – was sexist (the Advertising Standards Authority ruled it wasn't).
In reality, says Hodge: "Any crew that you look at – I mean cabin crew
and flight crew – you see a large mix of men and women." A third of
Virgin's cabin crew are male, for instance. On a recent flight, apart
from one man, the plane's entire crew – including three on the flight
deck – were women. "That was a fun day."
For the past couple of
years, British Airways has been trying to increase its recruitment of
women. "What we're after is the best person for the job and if we're
only looking at half the population then we're clearly missing a trick,"
says Captain Dave Thomas, BA's chief pilot and head of training. They
are having some success – the number of female candidates for jobs went
from 5% to 15% in the past couple of years. Thomas thinks the lack of
women is mainly a cultural problem that needs to be tackled at an early
age. "We did a little bit of research, surveying children between the
ages of six and 12, and I think it came out as number two on the boys'
list of top jobs but I think girls don't necessarily think of it as an
Does he think sexism exists in terms of women's career
progression? "Because of the way pilots generally progress, most
airlines are based on a seniority system, so it is about how long you've
been in the job. As long as you keep up the same standard – all pilots
get trained and tested – then there's no reason why gender would be a
"I can't recommend it highly enough," says Hodge of her
job. "There is a lot of flexibility within becoming a pilot, whether
you want to be an instructor or a commercial pilot, or work in regional
jets and live in the Channel Islands, or work for a cargo airline. I
can't imagine doing anything different."