Feature: The Fight for Flight and addressing female under-representation in aviation

written by Hannah Dowling | August 19, 2021

This feature is taken from Australian Aviation’s Women in Aviation special, published in issue 381.

The next print issue of Australian Aviation, out next week, will see its biggest redesign and relaunch in years. In anticipation, we’re publishing some of our favourite stories of recent times online. Today, we give you Fight for Flight, an investigative piece written by reporter Hannah Dowling, who sat down with women across the industry – from academics, to advocates, to, of course, pilots – to better understand the barriers that continue to impede on women’s success in aviation, and brainstorm solutions. Find out more about how you subscribe, here

Since as early as the 1920s, women and men alike turned their eyes to the skies, and dreamed of flight. Despite challenges and hostility, women of means flocked to obtain licences in surprising numbers. Australia’s first qualified female pilot, Millicent Bryant, received her pilot’s licence in 1927. And yet, we wouldn’t see a female airline pilot in this country until over 50 years later. Since then, women have had to fight hard for their rights to fly.

While we’ve definitely made some headway in the last 100 years, women make up around 10 per cent of the Australian pilot community, and 15 per cent of RAAF staff. There are just 38 female pilots in the RAAF, representing just 5 per cent of the 752 pilots in the air force. And a mere 2 per cent of Australia’s aeronautical engineers are women.

But why is that? If women have been enthusiastic participants in the aerospace sphere for more than 100 years, why are there still so few of them in the industry today?

In speaking with women across all walks of the aviation sector, there does appear to be three key themes that continued to pop up in conversation. These themes – let’s call them the ‘main barriers’ – appear to, in some way, limit women’s abilities to enter and excel in aviation. Each of these barriers is complicated and nuanced, and hold an array of smaller barriers within them.

While we’re on the topic of complexity and nuance, it is important to note that these themes are in no way exclusive to aviation, and have similarly limited the upwards mobility of women across professional fields. However, these barriers appear to have eased in many fields, such as medicine (now 40 per cent female), law (49 per cent), and IT (28 per cent).

Here we’ll discuss the specific ways that these three main barriers have specifically impacted women in aviation, and provide some proactive insight into how to improve the sector, for everyone involved.

1. Lack of awareness to the possibilities of a career in aviation

The first barrier is essentially the self-fulfilling prophecy that is the lack of women in the aviation field, which means women have little in the way of examples or role models to base their career aspirations off.

In a collaborative discussion between Australian Aviation and Talking Leads – which included Grace* (an A320 airline captain), Jennifer* (a general aviation pilot), Kelly* (a UK-based airline pilot), Liesl Haris (founder of Talking Leads) and myself – it became clear that often women in aviation already have concrete links to the industry.

Often, young women that go into aviation have a very visible role model to support them through their journey into the industry – usually a parent, aunt or uncle, or a close friend. The anecdotal evidence appears to suggest that having such a clear understanding of the pathway through an aviation career, and the benefits, makes women more compelled to give it a go.

“There is a saying that ‘if you can see it, you can be it’,” Dr Janet Bednarek, aviation historian and Professor of History at the University of Dayton, adds. “The number of professional female pilots of any kind remains small, as it has throughout history, making it particularly hard for young women to see another woman working in aviation, as a pilot or otherwise.”

Kelly adds that popular culture and media contribute to the ongoing “prevalent white male stereotype” of pilots and aviation workers, which in itself can be off putting for young girls considering aviation.

“There is simply a lack of female role models and mentors in the industry for women to observe,” Kelly says.

2. Inhospitable corporate cultural norms

The second major barrier to women excelling in aviation is the current state of corporate culture, essentially all the internal structures and practices within aviation workplaces today. From the very beginning, aviation was a very ‘exclusive’ venture.

“At the dawn of commercial aviation, the 1920s, the new commercial aviation industry very deliberately hired only white, male pilots,” says Dr Bednarek. “For decades to come, as far as airlines were concerned, the only role for women on an airplane was as a stewardess.”

And while the industry has come a long way in the last 100 years, these ideals have taken a long time to slowly change. As it stands, there are a lot of stereotypes, misunderstandings and biases that permeate through the middle managers, hiring managers, and colleagues that women encounter day-to-day in the field.

“Female colleagues face comments on a daily basis regarding their gender, sometimes it’s just a joke, but even that can get tedious over time,” Kelly says. “I’ve also heard more concerning stories of inappropriate behaviour towards women at work that have been ignored by management, because the people instigating the behaviour are a part of the infamous ‘boys club’ (old colleagues and friends with management).”

Speaking more on the concept of the ‘boys club’, and the inherent difficulties for women to penetrate that hierarchy, Jennifer adds: “It comes from the values and attitudes that management have, and have been exposed to. People who are old school management, or were exposed to old school management and see that as the norm, almost see women in the field as some sort of novelty, or just something nice to look at.”

This is essentially why we still see inequality issues when it comes to gender and race in the industry. But the ‘boys club’ mentality can be dangerous for those kept on the outer circle, like Jennifer was when she started as the first female pilot at her company. “I wasn’t considered as equal to the boys,” she says. “I was spoken to and treated like a second-class citizen. I faced a lot of harassment and bullying, there were awful things that went on, and upper management knew it and just allowed it to continue. When I did speak up, they just saw me as having a bit of a whinge.”

Jennifer tells the story of the extreme circumstances it took before she earned some of the respect of her colleagues. “An incident happened, and honestly I’m lucky to be alive. We had just taken off, and the engine just blew itself apart, and ignited. I ended up gliding that aircraft back to the aerodrome in the dark and landing it,” she says.

“It was only then that I earned respect as a pilot, the kind of respect that the boys were given straight off the bat. It’s sad it took something so awful and life-threatening to prove to the boys and the managers that I was their equal and to make me a meaningful part of their team.”

3. Biological factors and expectations of women with children

The third major barrier to women in aviation is the biological factor, and the roles that women play when children come into the picture – something that can be detrimental to women in any career.

“The reality is, having kids and doing this work is a big juggling act, it’s huge, but people do what they need to do to make it work,” Grace says. “And I think it’s the same in any job that is highly demanding of you physically, and shift work jobs, think doctors and nurses, people just make it work with children.”

“Exactly,” Haris chimes in. “It’s the same for women in any career. You decide you want to do it and you just do it; you make it work. You have to!”

However, again, sometimes industry culture can play a part that continues to keep women out of these roles, making for an inhospitable environment.

“Commercial aviation is not known to be particularly family-friendly. Current HR policies for pilots, both male and female, make it difficult for them to find a satisfactory work/life balance,” Dr Bednarek says.

Jennifer agrees. “I personally found that women who are of childbearing age and express interest in having children, that’s almost frowned upon in this industry – something that isn’t the case for men, because it’s seen as fine for them to spend so much time away from their families, regardless of whether or not that’s what he wants,” she says.

Raising children while working in a job that offers long, inconsistent hours is a logistical challenge for both men and women, but there is the undeniable ‘biological factor’ involved. “Obviously we physically bear children, and many women, not all but many, will have the desire to spend the first 18 months or so with the child,” Haris says.

“But it’s already taken us so long to get into the industry and then the impact of taking a break to have children, that needs to be more accepted, we need to be given equal opportunity to succeed despite our physiological differences and the fact that we may need to take time off.”

“I agree, I think the main thing with aviation that makes it more apparent though is that you can’t just leave easily, and then come back two years later, and continue where you left off,” Grace adds. “There’s seniority hierarchies, you have to be current, there’s a lot that goes into it, and obviously this disproportionately affects women, but it’s a problem for men with children too, who may want to spend more time with their family.”

This essentially means that if industry leaders are serious about promoting greater gender equality across the industry, we need policies in place that make aviation hospitable for women – which will likely benefit men with families, too.

Talking solutions

In the Talking Leads discussion, all agreed that the industry has come a long way over the decades, and a lot of airlines are recognising these types of problems and working through solutions. However, as women with lived experience in the industry, the group had some other ideas.

“The first step to understanding and change is communication, and I think that is going to be key to making the aviation industry a more welcoming place for everyone,” Haris says. According to Haris and Grace, both managers and colleagues should work towards understanding and celebrating the different and unique qualities that women bring to roles in aviation, while maintaining the exact same capabilities as men.

“I think it’s important moving forward that men are active participants in those conversations, and in sharing why they see women as a great addition to the industry,” Grace says. She adds that a lot of her male colleagues quietly support women, and don’t make a big deal out of the differences of women – they basically “just get on with it”.

However, until women are more welcomed in the industry, it might just take those kinds of men speaking up and promoting the value of women in the workplace, in order to bring girls to the position where they too can comfortably “just get on with it”.

“There are plenty of men who know how good it is to work with women, because we’re different, we have different sensitivities to them. In my personal experience as a pilot, I’ve flown with guys who perhaps have never flown with a woman before in their life, and then there I am. And then they get to see that I am just as capable and talented as any other co-pilot, but there are benefits to flying with a woman, too,” Grace adds.

“In my experience, I find it quite easy to have long and often deep and meaningful conversations with my co-pilots, which is so helpful on longer flights that can be a little boring. Sometimes a male colleague says they’re surprised because we just met and now, we’re having these deep meaningful conversations in the flight deck, and they aren’t used to that. I think usually with other men, they try to keep up this sort of ‘manly’ facade. But with a woman, they let their guard down a little more and they’re happy to do it.”

This isn’t to say that every woman is a world-class communicator, or an empath, but these are skills that, traditionally, women can perform at a higher level than men, Grace adds. “And really, it’s actually hugely helpful to lower those guards and have that trust between pilots in the cockpit,” she says.

Haris adds: “I completely agree, particularly in this field, any time communication increases, collective competence increases. If men are more willing to drop those barriers and open up to women in the cockpit, that makes them a strong team. If something happens while you’re in the cockpit, you need to be in control, you need to trust your co-pilot and be able to communicate clearly with them. So, building trust in a short time frame is a huge benefit, and managers and industry need to recognise that.”

So, communication, understanding the value that women bring to the industry, and having males as active supporters of these movements are key to targeting a hostile corporate culture, and encouraging more women into aerospace fields.

However, when it comes to the issue of family matters, “today’s attitudes don’t just affect women, they affect everyone”, says Jennifer.

“It really doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, if you have a two-year-old at home who’s sick, you’re going to feel it when you can’t be there. I’ve met plenty of male pilots who feel the same way. Currently, it isn’t a very family-friendly job, and that likely keeps a lot of women out, plus a lot of capable men who maybe don’t like that aspect either,” Grace says. “If we really want to see everyone in the industry as equals, then we need policies that make it easier for all genders to have a family and a balance with their job.”

“The way I see it,” Grace continues, “is airlines at the moment likely see that giving people flexibility, or letting them take time out of the workforce, means investing money in them to get them re-trained. However, I think if the industry was to be more open to being family-friendly, it could save them money in the long term.

“It would lead to a more capable workforce, and a more loyal one, so they wouldn’t need to invest as often in new-hire training due to people leaving. Women, in particular, would likely stick with the company long term for those benefits.”

*Names have been changed for privacy reasons.

First published in issue 381. To read other features in this issue, you can subscribe here



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