Why Aren’t There Many Female Commercial Pilots?

Sarah T. asks: Why do you never see commercial airline pilots that are women?

female-pilotWhen it comes to gender disparity, the world of commercial airline piloting is one of the most skewed with a whopping 97% of all commercial pilots being male (4000 female commercial pilots vs. 130,000 male worldwide according to The International  Society of Women Airline Pilots).  Those numbers shift slightly when you factor in women who are qualified to fly private planes but not commercial. But there is still a huge difference in the number of males compared to females even in this case. According to the US Civil Airmen Statistics, in 2011 there were about 617,000 qualified pilots in the United States, 41,000 of which were women, which means just over 93% of all pilots in 2011 were men.

So what gives here?  Do women just not like flying? Are the airline industry and the training schools just sexist?

On the latter issue, at one point like in so many industries, yes. As discussed in this article on Helen Richey, who became the world’s first female pilot “to fly a commercial airliner on a regularly scheduled mail route” on December 31, 1934, she quit after only 10 months due to how poorly she was treated by male staff.

Among other things, Richey was barred from becoming a member of the Pilot’s Union and was forbidden from flying in anything other than fair weather. It should be noted here that these restrictions were being placed on a woman who once crawled onto the wing of a plane she was flying to repair a tear.  She also spent years flying stunt planes.

Another thing that historically was holding early female pilots back was the fact that to become a commercial pilot, one needed to be subjected to various strength and height requirements. Since women are generally shorter than men and there is often a disparity in physical strength, many women were barred from even applying to become a pilot. However, in recent years this has gotten much better, to quote The International  Society of Women Airline Pilots: These requirements have mainly fallen by the wayside. The only requirement is that a prospective pilot can fly the simulator provided during the interview process, without undue problems due to height or strength.”

As for the issue of sexism in more modern times, according to pilot and editor of Aviation for Women magazine, Amy Laboda, “I can tell you that [female airline pilots] have made tremendous progress, and the reason … is because most of the dinosaurs are gone… The men who didn’t want women in the cockpit have mostly retired.”

Today, it’s generally not so much that those within the industry have any issues with female pilots, but, interestingly enough, the people who respond most poorly are the passengers. Within the industry, there’s actually been a huge drive by some airlines in recent years, for example by British Airways, to increase the number of females applying for given positions, and thus hopefully start to even out the numbers. So with some companies, while you’re still going to need to bring the skills and the experience to the table, you actually might have a leg up on the competition at the moment if you’re a woman trying to become a commercial pilot.  If you’ve got the same skill and experience as a male applying, one would think the companies looking for more female pilots will pick you over your equivalent XY competition.

So why haven’t the numbers evened out since the sexist “dinosaurs” have all retired? Well one theory is that the sheer amount of time one needs to dedicate to being a pilot, and brutal travel schedule, turns a lot of women off because they’d rather focus on their domestic life and stay closer to home. This is a nice theory and perhaps is a factor, but there are only colloquial sources to back it up. Further, the same can be said about a lot of industries that don’t see anywhere near a 4,000 vs. 130,000 type split in number of women vs. men working in the respective fields.

Another theory is that, for whatever reason, young girls never see being a pilot as a career option whether because the field doesn’t fit young girls’ interests or perhaps simply because you rarely see female commercial pilots in real life or on TV or movies; so there is a lack of visible role models. A study conducted by British Airways in their efforts to learn why more women don’t become commercial pilots discovered that among young boys, “pilot” was the second most popular career choice. With girls, it wasn’t even mentioned. So whatever the underlying reason, most young girls just don’t find becoming a commercial pilot appealing. This also, perhaps, explains why the numbers are so skewed even in the private pilot license arena, still with a 93%/7% male vs. female split.

All that said, it’s generally thought that the biggest factor stopping women from becoming commercial pilots is the fact that a lot of pilots come from a military background, an option that wasn’t even open to women in many countries (and some still not) until relatively recently. In the U.S., for instance, until 1993 women weren’t allowed to fly combat aircraft.

So if a woman wanted to become a commercial pilot before such restrictions were lifted, they’d have to foot the $100,000-ish bill to acquire all the necessary training and experience.  And keep in mind, commercial pilots just starting out don’t get paid much.  According to FAPA (Future and Active Pilot Advisers), first officers can start out as low as $20,000 per year. Needless to say, investing those same dollars and hours into other careers can often be much more lucrative, particularly up front. As commercial pilot Jill Schilmoeller said, “You have to love flying, because you start off getting paid horribly and you are gone a lot…”

To get around the training cost, one essentially has to join the military, where once again we find a huge disparity in the desire to do so in men vs. women.  So not only do we have an issue of young girls not dreaming of becoming pilots, but we also have significantly less women joining the military and becoming pilots there, and maybe making “commercial pilot” a future option for themselves, even if they didn’t think of it as an option as a child. While most men also don’t see the military as an option they want to pursue, the small number that do and then become pilots there still eclipse the number of women doing it.

Combined with the cost of getting the training all yourself without the military footing the bill, this results in a relatively huge pool of men applying for commercial pilot positions compared to women. So when it all shakes out, even without any sexism in the industry itself, the result is that, at least for now, it will be a rare flight you take where one of the people flying the plane is a woman.

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  • Jake Lakota

    Does EVERY job in the world have to be equal between the SEXES? What are the percentages of male/female gynecologists? Are women sexist for wanting a female rather than a male? When the military allowed women on ships in the early 1990’s, why, when war broke out, did a vast majority of them all of a sudden get KNOCKED UP? Have you ever seen video of a female cop? She needs ten other men to back her up in an arrest!

    • SJS

      Exactly… some jobs just naturally gravitate men to them, and others (say elementary school teacher) attract more women… lets get over it and move on. Social engineering is so 90s…

  • vanderleun

    Because gurls can’t fly gud. Dat’s why. And just wait until we gotta have the quotas for 3rd world lesbian single mothers… then the number of the gurls that not only can’t fly good but can’t fit in the seats goes way up.

  • Tiny Iota

    You say ” the people who respond most poorly are the passengers”, but I cannot see this mentioned in the Guardian article you link to.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Tiny lota: That was based on quotes from a few female commercial pilots linked in the references.

  • Josh

    I wanted to be a pilot when I was a kid, but it was because I thought planes and flying was AWESOME, not because I looked up to some doofus in a silly uniform – lol

    I don’t know why anyone would want to be a pilot these days, they overwork and undersleep the crap out of them and most things are automated in the cockpit at this point.

  • matt

    Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?

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  • Gary D.

    My guess – and it’s only a guess – is that it all has to do with the level of testosterone in men versus that in women.

    From what I understand, the higher testosterone levels in males results in their taking more and greater risks. Take a look at http://cyclejumpers.com/ (“Find a Jumper”). How many female cycle jumpers do we see versus the number of males?

    Flying an aircraft is, by any stretch of the imagination, a high-risk venture. The thought of taking responsibility for hundreds of lives, as well as one’s own life, in a flying tin can with four powerful engines would likely be unacceptably risky for most. Only those with sufficient testosterone – balls, if you will – are willing to take that risk.

    • kimosaki

      That is so well said. I believe its fundamental gender differences. and Men have higher testosterone. Aviation is a high risk industry indeed. Its not a job where you can turn up to the office at 9 am and switch and start texting on your phone.

  • Knoet

    I just retired after having been an airline captain for over 20 yrs. females are hired to get the percentage up and not because they can fly which btw most cannot..
    There are some exceptional gals flying out there, but most should have never been hired.

    • Eli T

      Hi dinosaur! Bye dinosaur!

    • steve767300

      Totally agree. 99% have zero hands and feet. And are hired with very little experience.

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  • As a current female airline captain I can comment on this article from experience. Josh’s post is accurate in regards to pilots (more so with the regional airlines) being overworked with low pay. It’s not what it used to be and passengers are angry – but who can blame them with the way they are herded like cattle from the moment they enter the TSA line until they get their baggage at their destination. These are a few of the reasons I’m moving on to another field entirely after 15 years to a career that gives back to the community not sucks from it. As for silly comments about “girls not being able to fly” – Last time I went to recurrent training in the sim, had a fed from the FAA observe the flight, or had a company line check, I was held to the same standards as a man. There is not different test standards for men and women – it’s the same. Being a pilot really is a great career choice in many ways but I would highly encourage future aviators to do some research and make a decision based off their needs and lifestyle choices.

    • Luca

      What plane do you fly? How much force would you need to exert on the flight controls in case of hydraulic pressure loss?

    • steve767300

      Thank god I never flew with you with that terrible attitude.

  • Out of 617,000 total Commercial Pilots only 41,000 are women –just 6.64 % –in a Super-Topper Most Richest Country in the World

    World Average is 3.9 %

    In very Poor Developing India out of 5050 total commercial Air-Pilots —600 (11.6 %) are Women
    Between 2009 to 2014 (5 years) among the Total recruits for Commercial Pilots training out of 4267 —628 (14.7 %) are Women –The Day is Not very far off when 100 % commercial Pilots in India will be Women !!!! –Cost of of Training in India is very-very- High (4,000,000 Indian Rupees => U.S. $ 70,000) compared to their Source of Income –The Reason given is “Family Encouragement and Support ” (Source => Times of India—Nov.24,2014–04.49 A.M. IST

  • Luca

    In the event of power failure from one or both engines or hydraulic leaks, the flight controls become very hard. It would be like losing power steering in the car.
    Landing the aircraft would require the pilot to pull 100 lbs on the yoke just before touchdown. Men and women that are physically weak should not be allowed to fly an aircraft.

    • 22,000 flight hours

      Power failures and hydraulic leaks are just some of the emergency/abnormal situations that are practiced and tested in a simulator every six months. Anyone who can’t handle it, male or female, doesn’t pass the checkride, and is taken off flight status. Most people don’t realize the constant studying and testing required for airline pilots, including a medical exam every six months.

      BTW, there are many ignorant comments on this site.

  • Lexxi

    I’ve always wondered why certain jobs were so traced to one specific gender, or why one gender seems to have more of an advantage than another. This one was by far my most asked job, and I’m glad to see the results. However I am sad that, in reality, this is the world we live in where both genders have their advantages in certain jobs. Maybe one day things will even out, here’s hoping.

  • steve767300

    Because they suck at it. 99% of them do not have the proper mindset or experience of their male counterparts. That is a fact!