Female pilots still face uphill struggle over perceptions

Today, just 3 per cent of professional pilots worldwide are women


Salma al Baloushi, Etihad’s first woman pilot, talks to young female Etihad employees.

Etihad Aviation Group celebrated Emirati Women’s Day 2017 by organizing a panel under the title: “Emirati Women Partners In Giving – Between the Past and Present”, which featured several successful female Emirati Etihad staff who work across the spectrum of our operations, including engineering, legal, flight and airport operations.

(Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National)

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When a stricken Southwest Airlines jet was expertly landed after an emergency descent in April, saving 148 lives, it was a surprise to some that a woman was at the controls.

Role models remain few and far between for women wanting to enter the cockpit, rather than serve the onboard drinks, despite a huge shortage of pilots worldwide.

"So often we're shown men as pilots, and women as cabin crew. This could be sending a message to young girls that if they want to work in aviation, it can't be as a pilot," the British Airline Pilots' Association told AFP.

But things are finally starting to change and a few airlines are trying to redress the gender imbalance.

Europe's biggest budget carrier easyJet, under an initiative named after pioneer aviator Amy Johnson, wants 20 per cent of its new cadet pilots to be women by 2020.

Today, just 3 per cent of professional pilots worldwide are women, according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

The UN agency estimates that passenger numbers will double over the next 20 years, and that airlines will need to recruit 620,000 pilots to keep up with the demand.

Tammie Jo Shults is one of those few women.

Ms Shults, one of the first female fighter pilots for the US Navy, performed heroics in safely bringing down her Southwest Boeing 737 after an engine blowout.

One passenger died in the incident.

According to retired captain Kathy McCullough, "having someone in the spotlight who's a lady who does a great job just points out that it can happen and does happen and isn't really that much of a surprise".

Nevertheless, Mr McCullough said after Ms Shults hit the headlines that her generation of female pilots were still waiting to pass the baton to another.


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"Until we reach a tipping point, which is supposedly 20 per cent, I don't think we'll see much in the way of a change," she told National Public Radio.

The Top Gun machismo attached to aviation runs deep.

In the UAE, there has been positive change but, like everywhere else, there are assumptions women face that men don't.

"What will you do when you get married?" was the first question Salma Al Baloushi was asked a decade ago during a job interview to become a pilot, The National reported last summer.

That question stings Etihad’s first female pilot to this day.

Ms Al Baloushi said it was family support that helped her wear down the naysayers who disapproved when she travelled from Al Ain to Abu Dhabi to apply for a pilot’s position that she saw in a magazine.

“My mother was worried but she supported me even though some people cut off relations with me because they thought the job was not appropriate for a woman. Now their girls are engineers and wear the same dress that I’m wearing and they realise they were wrong."

Ms Baloushi graduated as first officer in 2012.

Like most women, she has learnt to juggle career, home and acknowledges that her husband’s involvement in caring for their two children has helped her devote time to work.

“People felt I would have to choose between my career and family. But I love both my work and my family and it is support at home, from my husband, my family and from my batch mates that have helped me focus on my job.”

Commercial flying doesn't lend itself to a work-family balance, giving organisations such as the ICAO and the International Society of Women Airline Pilots an uphill challenge to entice more women into the profession, AFP said.

The society says just over 7,400 pilots flying for commercial airlines are female, or 5.2 per cent of the global total.

United ranks best with 7.4 per cent. Ironically Southwest, Ms Shults's employer, has just 3.6 per cent.

It is not just employment practices that the International Society of Women Airline Pilots has to confront but passenger prejudices as well, according to former chairwoman Liz Jennings Clark.

A captain with Dutch low-cost carrier Transavia, 55-year-old Ms Clark likes when possible to come out of the cockpit and say goodbye to her passengers at the end of a flight.

But she said that many still hand their litter to her, mistaking her for cabin crew.

Girls who want to grow up as pilots still lack role models, agreed Sophie Coppin, diversity officer at the French Civil Aviation University in Toulouse.

Among both students and their parents, "there is a conscious or unconscious suppression" of the idea of women as aviators, she said.

About 15 per cent of the student pilots at the French university are women. Double that figure are training as air traffic controllers, another sector suffering an acute shortage of entrants.

There has, at least, been some progress since 1979 when Ms Shults, 56, was at high school and attended a careers lecture on aviation by a retired colonel.

The Southwest pilot said she was the only girl in the class, and he started by asking her if she was lost.

"I mustered up the courage to assure him I was not and that I was interested in flying," she wrote in a book about female military aviators.

"He allowed me to stay, but assured me there were no professional women pilots."