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Women in aviation: flying through the glass ceiling

by Conor Convey Senior First Officer and NEC Member

Since the last general election in 2015, the number of women in Parliament has climbed by almost a third, showing that women in politics have come a long way in the last century. It actually seems almost unbelievable that less than 100 years ago women weren’t even allowed to vote. In the same vein, it’s also hard to believe less than 100 years ago, women weren’t allowed to become commercial pilots. Although this has long since changed, it seems that women haven’t been quick to take to the skies, with females still only making up 5% of commercial pilots worldwide, a statistic reflected in British aviation. Whatever the reasons for the low uptake, the very fact that some airlines are looking to encourage women to enter the profession is a long way from where commercial airlines started. With the extra obstacles they had to overcome on account of their gender, in the early days of aviation women had to demonstrate immense bravery simply to follow their passion.

No place for a woman

Regardless of some pioneering women in the early days of flight, perhaps most notably of course Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson, decades later women still faced difficulties when trying to break into aviation. Yvonne Pope Sintes, the first British female jet airline captain, revealed some of these struggles in her published book, Trailblazer in Flight: Britain’s First Female Jet Airline Captain. Until the 1960s, women wanting an airline career were destined to be air stewardesses—and this is exactly how Yvonne began her career. After being turned down by the RAF, who said they wouldn’t train women pilots, she became a stewardess in the hope that the pilots would teach her how to fly. And indeed one captain, who had been an instructor during the war, offered to help. Once she had attended to passengers he would tutor her.

Despite all the odds, Yvonne joined Morton Air Services in 1965 but faced criticism from her colleagues – from both men and women. Other women viewed her with suspicion and as she recalls, made comments that the cockpit wasn’t a place for women, while one of her fellow pilots threatened to resign on announcement of her employment. In the face of early objections, Yvonne’s aviation career went from strength to strength, and she went on to become a captain with Dan-Air in 1972. Now in her eighties, she recalls her flying days with a real passion.

Women in aviation today

It seems the obstacles facing women these days are less policy-driven but more due to entrenched stereotypes: men are pilots and women are air stewardesses. In a British Airways poll just last year, 63% of women said they were put off a career as a professional airline pilot when they were growing up for reasons including a lack of visible role models and being told it was a man’s job.

•    20 per cent said when growing up, pilots were played by men on TV and in films.
•    20 per cent said they thought women could only be cabin crew.
•    13 per cent said they had never been on a plane flown by a female pilot.
•    10 per cent said they were told it was a man’s job when growing up.

The idea that there is a lack of female role models in aviation is a view shared by the British Air Line Pilots’ Association. Jim McAuslan, BALPA General Secretary, acknowledges a “frustration” that there are still comparatively few female pilots:

Women make great pilots, but unfortunately only five percent of our members and British pilots are women, and that’s disappointing. Our experience is that people at recruitment fairs are there because they’ve got a dream. It is a career that is achievable for everyone. So women should have the dream.

We welcome initiatives from British Airways and easyJet to encourage more women to join UK airlines. However, recruiting more female pilots appears to be just one part of the battle; airlines also need to ensure they retain and support pilots throughout their careers.

The industry and government need to do more to encourage people from less-affluent backgrounds to become pilots as well. The only criterion for determining whether to become a pilot should certainly not be gender, and not cash, but aptitude alone.”

A need for more role models

Upon closer inspection there seems to be many women who are role models; TV’s Carol Vorderman is now a fully trained pilot, but perhaps a bigger issue is the lack of coverage and celebration of their achievements. We may see the landscape changing as more stories begin to emerge of female pilots.

Yvonne’s story is just one of many and despite early hurdles, she went on to enjoy a fantastic career. She is not only an inspiration to would-be female pilots, but anyone with a dream to chase; and although something might be difficult, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s impossible.

* A version of this article first appeared in The Log Summer 2015

** SFO Conor Convey is a member of BALPA National Executive Council and oversees projects within the Membership and Careers Services department.