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Women Pilot Statistics: Female Representation in Aviation

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We live in deeply controversial times where several pairs of opposing social forces battle it out in the arenas of public opinion, politics, and professional circles. Although there seems to be a lot of strife nowadays, these may just be birthing pains of a society that is more focused on equality.

Women are being recognized more and more each day as equals to their male counterparts, even in industries that have been traditionally dominated by males. In this article, we shine the spotlight on one such industry – aviation. How has the representation of women in aviation improved? Let’s look at the numbers.

The history of women in aviation

There is no lack of inspiration for female figures in the history of aviation. In 1906, E. Lillian Todd was the first woman to design and build an aircraft. In 1909, Baroness Raymonde de Laroche became the first woman to fly solo, who was soon followed up by Helen Richey, the first woman pilot for a commercial airline in the US in 1934. Several decades later, Eileen Collins became the first female space shuttle commander.

Despite these women achieving feats that put them in the history books of aviation, the percentage of women in aviation remains surprisingly low. In the 1960s, only one in 21,417 women held a pilot certificate. By the 1980s, the ratio improved to one in 4,224, which has remained as the best level of representation of women in aviation in history.

What percentage of FAA-certified pilots are women?

Although there has been a steady growth in the number of female pilots in the last few decades, the percentage of female pilots remains quite dismal. If you fly commercially regularly, then you don’t even need to look at statistics to make this observation. To support this conclusion with concrete numbers, the table below summarizes the gender distribution of pilots and other aviation personnel for the year 2018.

CATEGORY TOTAL (2018) Women only Percentage
Pilot–Total 633,317 46,463 6.84
Student 167,804 22,266 11.71
Recreational (only) 144 10 6.49
Sport 6,246 240 3.70
Private 163,695 10,255 5.90
Commercial 99,880 6,556 6.16
Airline Transport 162,145 7,136 4.22
Pilot Total w/o Student Category 465,513 24,197 4.94
Flight Instructor Certificates 108,564 7,335 6.33
Remote Pilots 106,321 6,188 5.50
Non Pilot–Total 688,002 203,725 22.85
Mechanic 292,002 7,133 2.38
Repairmen 35,382 1,868 5.01
Parachute Rigger 6,430 631 8.94
Ground Instructor 67,784 5,085 6.98
Dispatcher 21,465 4,086 15.99
Flight Navigator 58 0 0.00
Flight Attendant 231,355 183,519 44.23
Flight Engineer 33,526 1,403 4.02

The pilots show that there are now only 46,463 women pilots, which accounts for only 6.84% of the total. The numbers become more discouraging if you discount the pilots that only hold student licenses – only 4.94% of them are women. The percentage of women that are flight instructors or remote pilots don’t fare much better at only 6.33% and 5.50%, accordingly.

Looking at the statistics of non-pilot aviation personnel, it’s clear that it is only in the dispatcher and flight attendant positions that women are most visible. This trend harkens back to the Golden Age of Aviation when women had to endure the negative stereotype of being “trolley dollies.” Although the numbers show that the current trends still how a leaning towards stereotypical roles, it is worth noting that flight attendants deserve just as much respect as other aviation-related personnel.

What have been the historical trends of women pilots?

The 2018 data only shows a “snapshot” of the status of women in aviation but does not if there has been an improvement in representation. To observe a trend, we must look at the data from previous years. The tables below show the five-year trends in the number of women in each profession and their percentage of the total.

CATEGORY No. of women
2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
Pilot–Total 39,322 39,287 39,187 42,694 46,463
Student 14,369 14,580 15,971 19,219 22,266
Recreational (only) 16 16 15 14 10
Sport 192 211 223 229 240
Private 11,652 11,339 10,009 9,971 10,255
Commercial 6,685 6,587 6,081 6,267 6,556
Airline Transport 6,408 6,554 6,888 6,994 7,136
Pilot Total w/o Student Category 24,953 24,707 23,216 23,475 24,197
Flight Instructor Certificates 6,521 6,669 6,848 7,105 7,335
Remote Pilots NA NA 793 3,462 6,188
Non Pilot–Total 174,000 183,259 187,914 195,993 203,725
Mechanic 8,151 8,419 6,536 6,855 7,133
Repairmen 2,278 2,289 1,822 1,847 1,868
Parachute Rigger 763 811 540 597 631
Ground Instructor 5,889 5,907 4,772 4,924 5,085
Dispatcher 4,326 4,503 3,615 3,867 4,086
Flight Navigator 1 1 1 0 0
Flight Attendant 150,941 159,703 169,170 176,471 183,519
Flight Engineer 1,651 1,626 1,458 1,432 1,403

 

CATEGORY % of women
2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
Pilot–Total 6.21 6.24 6.28 6.55 6.84
Student 10.65 10.62 11.05 11.42 11.71
Recreational (only) 6.78 7.77 7.89 8.38 6.49
Sport 3.59 3.71 3.65 3.62 3.70
Private 6.25 6.23 5.81 5.78 5.90
Commercial 6.02 6.11 5.95 6.00 6.16
Airline Transport 4.02 4.06 4.18 4.19 4.22
Pilot Total w/o Student Category 5.01 5.02 4.85 4.85 4.94
Flight Instructor Certificates 6.07 6.10 6.16 6.24 6.33
Remote Pilots NA NA 3.75 4.77 5.50
Non Pilot–Total 19.52 20.10 22.35 22.60 22.85
Mechanic 2.33 2.40 2.29 2.34 2.38
Repairmen 5.44 5.50 5.03 5.01 5.01
Parachute Rigger 8.06 8.40 8.45 8.79 8.94
Ground Instructor 7.58 7.69 6.83 6.90 6.98
Dispatcher 15.77 15.94 15.47 15.76 15.99
Flight Navigator 0.86 0.97 1.47 0.00 0.00
Flight Attendant 44.41 44.36 44.31 44.28 44.23
Flight Engineer 3.63 3.69 3.92 3.98 4.02

There are quite a lot of numbers to leaf through, so let’s focus on just a few points:

  • There seemed to be a regression in the total number of women pilots from 2014 to 2016, and it’s only in the more recent years that the figure has started to recover. However, one of the more encouraging changes is the fact that there are now 50% more women student certificate holders compared to back in 2014. This indicates a boom in the number of women pilots in training from 2016 to 2018. Hopefully, this translates to a greater of licensed pilots in the coming years.
  • In terms of percentage, the increase in female representation among licensed pilots has been dismal in the last five years – from 6.21% in 2014; the figure has only increased to 6.85% in 2018. If we don’t count pilots with student licenses, then the trend becomes even worse, as there seems to be a smaller portion of female pilots in 2018 than in 2014.
  • The certification standards for Remote Pilots were only implemented in 2016, giving us just a limited time frame to assess trends. It’s quite encouraging that there are now nearly eight times more female remote pilots than there were back in 2016. An increasing trend can also be observed based on percentages, although the increase is much less pronounced. At only 5.50% in 2019, it’s hardly what we would consider success in representation.
  • From 2014 to 2018, there has been a slow and steady improvement in the female representation of non-pilots. Contributing to this trend are increases in the percentage of female flight engineers, parachute riggers, and mechanics.
  • More interestingly, the percentage of females in the traditionally female job roles of dispatcher and flight attendant has not changed much in the last five years. We could interpret this as more women being interested in other aviation-related roles, such as pilots.

All in all, the improvements in female representation have not been remarkable. The percentage of for-hire female pilots is lower than the percentage of female boat captains and operators (8.2%), female police officers (15%), and female doctors and surgeons (31.8%). The common thread running across these professions is that they were all (and still are) traditionally dominated by males. However, compared to these industries, the growth of female representation in aviation has been very disappointing.

The lack of female representation even extends to airline management. A report by CAPA back in 2010 found that there were only 15 women CEOs or Managing Directors in airlines worldwide. A follow-up report in 2015 revealed that these figures even got worse as the female leaders moved on and were replaced by male counterparts.

What are the barriers to having more women pilots?

As we can see, there hasn’t been any remarkable improvement in female representation in aviation. This is further emphasized by comparing the numbers to other industries that have been dominated by men over the years. What is it with the aviation industry that makes it exceptionally difficult for women to penetrate or thrive in?

1. The perception of aviation as a field where men naturally excel in

Getting a pilot’s license can be incredibly expensive. Between the costs renting an aircraft to log your flight hours, the fees for the flight instructor, any instruction material or manuals, insurance, and the FAA testing fee, you’re bound to spend more than $10,00 even just to earn a Recreational license.

The estimated cost is already intimidating for just about anyone. For anyone who would like to go to flight school and attempt to earn a license, they likely go through a process of internal evaluation where they assess if they can earn back their investment. This involves an introspective look into their chances of becoming a successful pilot. It is in this step that the traditional image of aviation aids men more than women.

Men are somewhat pre-programmed to believe that they will excel as pilots just because there are already a lot of male pilots. Women, on the other hand, may have seeds of doubt planted in them by the very fact that female pilots are a rarity. This develops into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The issue highlights the power of image and perception. If only aviation was perceived as an industry where females can excel just as much as males, more women may be pre-disposed to invest in the training and try to become licensed pilots.

2. A training environment that is not friendly towards females

Another interesting statistic is that there always seems to be a higher percentage of student pilots who are female compared to for-hire student pilots who are female. Since the 1980s, around 10% to 11% of the student pilots have been female. However, this high number doesn’t always translate to an increase in for-hire pilots. What happens to the student pilots who apply for a student license to do flight training?

The answer is that many of them do not finish the training course or choose to not pursue an advanced pilot license. More than any other factor, it’s the training environment that has been noted as a contributor to this phenomenon.

The standard flight training program is designed for male students, who comprise around 90% of any training group. As such, most flight instructors are also male. This creates an invisible barrier for female flight students that makes it difficult for them to communicate well with instructors and to receive social support from their peers.

Along with this sense of alienation is the feeling among female flight students that they need to perform better than their male counterparts to even be considered an average pilot. This increased pressure to perform, along with the lack of emotional and social support, can be enough to discourage even the most brilliant female flight students.

3. Sexism

Perhaps the ugliest reason for the lack of female representation is the stubborn sexism that is still a characteristic of the aviation industry. Several studies have shown that female pilots tend to be judged more negatively when they make errors and that they are often ridiculed for not being able to take criticism from their instructors.

More than these sexist comments, separate studies have shown that female pilots are judged as being less competent by the mere fact that they are female. This trend in responses was observed whether the respondents were male or female, or pilots or non-pilots.

What will it take to promote better gender representation in aviation?

The barriers that prevent the growth of female representation in the aviation industry are so deeply ingrained that it’s going to take the effort of communities and major companies to overcome. Thankfully, this is exactly what is happening right now.

In 2018, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) with the South African Civil Aviation Authority conducted the first Global Aviation Gender Summit. The conference tackled gender-related agenda, citing how women are under-represented among FAA-certified crew and in the senior management teams of airlines. A similar conference was held in Seoul in June 2018, aptly entitled ‘Shattering the Ceiling – The Rise of Woman in Asian Aviation.’

The Women of Aviation Worldwide Week is a global event that aims to spread awareness about gender imbalance in the aviation industry. It was launched back in 2011 and has been attended by aviation companies, associations, and individuals who wish to showcase the opportunities that the aviation industry can offer to women. The next iteration of the event will take place from March 2 to 8, 2020.

To provide a community for female aviation professionals, the Women in Aviation International (WAI) was founded back in 1994. This non-profit organization serves as a support group for mentors and advisors to get in touch with female colleagues in the aviation industry. WAI now as more than 12,000 members globally, including men who support better female representation.

The Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University hosts day events and summer camps where middle-school and high-school girls can be introduced to opportunities in aviation and even go on introductory flights. Through these events, Embry-Riddle is hoping that more girls catch the “flying bug” and pursue a career in aviation when they grow up.

Another solution is to provide scholarships so that women no longer need to fear the financial risk of taking flight lessons. In 2019, Boeing announced funding of $3 million for scholarships to be granted to under-represented populations in the aviation industry. The target group included females, minorities, and veterans.

Final thoughts

The deep-seated bias for males exists not just in aviation, but in several other fields. While other industries, such as the medical field or law enforcement, have enjoyed a marked improvement in female representation, aviation is still struggling. Yes, there may have been progress in the past few years, but it is nowhere near fast enough if we’re looking for real representation.

The hurdles for females to get into aviation are huge. There needs to be a change in the social paradigm for people to see female pilots as being just as competent as male counterparts. It’s going to be a slow and difficult process to get there, and it’s going to take the collaborative effort of communities, corporations, training facilities, and individuals.

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