Women in Aviation: Past, Present & Future

In this blog post, I will briefly analyze women’s evolution in aviation, from past to present and future. Women have had a solid footprint in aviation history but have experienced many impediments. Since males make up 93% of all certified pilots, chances are that the next time you board a commercial plane to notice that in the cockpit will seat two males. However, with the pilot deficiency, there has never been a better time to evaluate and work to correct the female underrepresentation.

Past: Milestones in the History of Women in Aviation

Even though women were responsible for many major milestones throughout aviation’s history, starting with its origins – as they contributed to various “firsts” in the industry –  women faced continuous prejudice in this dominant male industry.

One notable woman, Blanche Scott, not only became the first woman to drive across the U.S. but the first female pilot to fly in America. Although Blanche Scott was taking flying lessons, she could only learn to maneuver the plane on the ground. However, during a lesson, the block “inexplicably” displaced, making history and proving that women were capable of piloting an aircraft. She joined Curtiss’ Exhibition Team, making her first official flight in 1910.

Harriet Quimby was first a writer, covering aviation-related stories for a living. She was also an adventurous spirit, and covering aviation-related stories aroused her interest in the aviation field. Knowing her intention to document her flight experiences, the magazine company she worked for paid for her flight lessons. As a result, the “bird girl” made a lot of fans among the magazine’s readers. Enthusiastic about the opportunities aviation would bring her, Quimby studied hard. She was the first woman to receive a pilot’s license in the U.S. in 1911. The following year, she flew across the English Channel.

Bessie Coleman became the first black female pilot and  Native American woman pilot in 1922. However, aviation programs in the U.S. denied her for being both African American and a woman. Persevering and believing in herself and her dream, she was eventually accepted into the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in France, where women could learn to fly. She also took French classes to learn the language and prepare her for training. Coleman became known for her tricks and performance capabilities in the aircraft, proving her skeptics wrong.

Amelia Earhart, another powerful female aviator, found herself fascinated with the idea of flying at an early age. To prove her abilities and experience, she gave herself the pilot “look,” cutting her hair short and sleeping in her leather jacket to give it a worn appearance. Before her famous solo flight across the Atlantic in 1932, she also set a record, flying her biplane 14,000 feet.

In 1934, Helen Richey was the first female pilot to be hired to fly by a commercial scheduled passenger carrier. Due to gender discrimination and the angered male union formed at the airline, she was forced out in November of 1935.

Sabiha Gökçen was a Turkish aviator. She trained on fighter planes and bombers at an air base in Eskișehir, earning her title as the first female fighter pilot in the world in 1936. Gökçen flew with 22 different acrobatic and bomber aircraft throughout her life, receiving multiple medals that recognized her achievements.

The idea of female pilots became known during WWII as the U.S. went through a massive pilot deficiency in 1942. To help fill the gap, women were trained to fly military planes from the factory to the military base, allowing men to be released for combat duty overseas. This elite group of female pilots was known as the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). As part of this program, more than 1,100 women flew various military aircraft. Even though the Army Air Forces commanding general was at first uncertain of the abilities of these women, he went on to apprehend that women could fly just as well as men. By the 1960s, there were 12,400 licensed women pilots in the United States, accounting for 3.6% of all pilots.

Other milestones in aviation history:

Emily Howell Warner became America’s first female commercial airline captain in 1973. (In fact, Warner was the first female pilot to be hired since Helen Richey — 39 years of female aviator underrepresentation.)

Mary Barr became the first female pilot with the Forest Service

Captain Lynn Rippelmeyer became the first female to captain a 747 on a transatlantic flight in 1984

Lt. Col. Eileen Marie Collins became the first woman pilot in the U.S. Space Shuttle program.

Even with all of these incredible stories, female pilots and women in aviation, in general, are still struggling to make a breakthrough in the present industry day.

Present: Women Underrepresentation in Aviation

According to Women in Aviation: A Workforce Report, a recent data collected by the University of Nebraska at Omaha Aviation Institute, women in aviation are underrepresented primarily in technical and leadership roles and overrepresented in low-income, low-profile positions:

1.5% of airline captains and 5.1% of all pilots

2.4% of mechanics

3% of CEOs, COOs, and other key leadership positions

16% of airport managers and air traffic control

40% of TSA screeners

79% of flight attendants

86% of travel agents

According to a CNN Travel article “women leave (the aviation industry) within five years because of lack of advancement or desire to achieve work-life balance, indicating this is a problem not just for the flight deck but for the entire aviation and aerospace industries.” However, as per a recent University of Wisconsin study, “women who leave aviation usually continue to work outside the home, indicating a lot can be done to retain women in aviation careers.” While other industries have altered work rules to accommodate the modern family, aviation and aerospace remain inflexibly untouched. One likely motive for the gender inequality in aviation is money, as training costs up to $150,000.

Stories of mothers and sons and fathers and daughters flying together may look like progress but highlight one of the problems. They contradict the fact those who aren’t exposed to the aviation industry at a young age don’t even think of aviation careers. Mental preparation is, therefore, a barrier to women and minorities who are not exposed early to aviation careers.

The time is now to encourage women to pursue a career in the aviation field, specifically in lucrative leadership or technical positions where gaps are the largest and ensure a work-life balance is obtained and maintained for the future. The time is now – as, as a Covid consequence, many people left the aviation industry, so the gap is massive to be filled in.

Future: What’s Next for Women in Aviation?

In 2021, only 4.7% of those holding airline transport pilot (ATP) certificates (the certification needed to fly passengers and cargo as a professional pilot) were women. However, the Pilot Institute Report showed that over 14.64% of student pilots are women. From this information, we can conclude that the number of women in the industry is growing, so things are moving in the right direction. Nevertheless, even at 15%, women would still be hugely underrepresented.

It’s important to look at the pilot demand as an opportunity to fill the gap with more female pilots, as more than 800,000 new pilots will be needed, with more than 200,000 in the U.S. alone. There has never been a better time to pursue aviation. With continued efforts in education and outreach, we can expect to see more females in the cockpit and, feasibly, in other higher-profile aviation roles.

Mentors play a big role in inspiring, encouraging, and showing young ladies from an early age that choosing to become a pilot is possible and achievable. This is the reason why various programs of Women in Aviation that imply the mentor model are so successful. Industry outreach also includes programming from kindergarten through high school, aviation curriculum development as part of STEM (science, technology, education, and math) education, and the creation of aviation high schools that are busing inner-city kids to campus. Women in Aviation International’s annual Girls in Aviation Day is designed to introduce girls to aviation careers in cities around the world.

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