As we celebrate Women of Aviation Worldwide Week (WOAW) and the anniversary of the world’s first female pilot licence (8 March 1910), we take a closer look at the gender imbalance within aviation, how it’s impacting the industry, and how far it’s come in its collective efforts to combat the underrepresentation of females in aviation.
Additionally, on a more personal note, we speak to AeroProfessional’s Ginny Merritt, who, with 16 years’ experience as an Airline and Executive Jet Pilot, talks about her personal experience of working within an industry that continues to be so overwhelmingly male-dominated.
Addressing the Imbalance
Many aviation pioneers over the last century have been women, each of whom have made a significant contribution to the growth and innovation of the industry. But despite this, we still see a tremendous gap in the gender of qualified pilots. Whilst the numbers vary depending on the report and the methodology used, a majority of figures suggest around 3-7% of worldwide commercial pilots are female.
In fact, women remain underrepresented in a majority of aviation-related roles. We see the same trends within leadership positions, with a report published by IATA stating that just 6% of global airlines are led by a female CEO. In addition, according to Women in Aviation: A Workforce Report 2021, the occupation least represented by women is Maintenance Technicians.
Women have, and continue to, break down barriers in almost every other industry, but aviation remains one of the outliers in its lack of achievement towards gender balance. So why do we continue to see such disparity, and what is the potential impact?
Aviation’s Future: The Gender Gap Impact
The gender gap is a subject that has become a hot topic over the years. One which has only been intensified as aviation continues to face significant workforce challenges, with the pilot skills shortage at the front and centre of the conversation.
As demand for air travel continues to ramp up post-pandemic, unless addressed, the shortage of skilled and qualified pilots will only become more of an issue, with some forecasts reporting at least a 60,000 shortage of pilots by 2029.
Identifying and appealing to underrepresented groups is a clear and necessary strategy to address the issue throughout the industry. Although it is clear that this extends beyond just flight deck, and well beyond gender equality alone, the lack of female pilots does illustrate the issue in an extremely visible way.
Put simply, Aviation is failing to access the full range of skills and talents it needs to address the very real challenge it faces. Breaking down barriers, and recruiting, retaining and advancing women in the industry is just one of the ways it can seek to alleviate the shortage of new and experienced pilots.
What can and is being done?
Over the last few years, several airlines have recognised and attempted to address the underrepresentation of female pilots through developments aimed at encouraging more women in to the industry. For example, in 2015, easyJet launched the Amy Johnson Flying Initiative, aimed at tackling industry-wide stereotypes and increasing its attraction of female pilots; and in 2020, Wizz Air launched its Cabin Crew to Captain programme, with the goal of breaking down barriers in the profession and supporting ambitious crew members on their journey to flight deck.
These are just some of the examples of how airlines are starting to address the gender gap and encourage diversity in the flight deck. But the real challenge is in understanding why women are less attracted to becoming a pilot than their male counterparts.
There have been many surveys and polls conducted over the years to try and understand the root cause, and it seems that the answer trends have changed very little over the last decade. The age-old bias that “it’s a man’s job” unfortunately remains prevalent, as does a distinct lack of female pilot role models for the younger generation to aspire to. More so, the industry’s lack of flexibility in work-life balance is becoming an increasing concern with no clear solution. At the crux of the matter, it seems the industry is just not yet convincing women that aviation holds opportunities for them.
That being said, there are, of course, many women who do choose a piloting career. And so, the next important question is: what is life really like for a female airline pilot?
Life as a Female Pilot: A First-Hand Account
Ginny Merritt, a specialist Aviation Recruitment Resourcer at AeroProfessional, reflects on her 16 years as a commercial pilot after first pursuing her dream in 2003, and continuing in the profession until 2019.
What made you decide to become a pilot?
I’d completed a charity sky dive and from then on I just knew I wanted to spend more time in the air. I asked my parents for a trial flying lesson for my 16th birthday (instead of getting my ears pierced!) and I was hooked. After that I was saving money at a Saturday job, and, sadly my Grandmother passed away around the same time, leaving me some money which enabled me to get my PPL, study books and exams. I had the most amazing time in my late teens and early twenties flying light aircraft to the channel islands and throughout France and Germany. For me, it was ultimate freedom.
Breaking in to commercial flying was difficult, and I hadn’t really been made aware of the air cadets route, so I decided to get an aviation-related job as a Customer Service Agent at London Heathrow Airport. I loved the buzz of the airport and I progressed well in my role, moving and working abroad. I was able to buy shares in a light aircraft to make my hobby more affordable, before I heard about a friend of a friend who was self-funding her way through modular courses to complete the 14 ATPL exams. So, finally at age 30, I took out a loan and commenced my journey.
Did you ever find it daunting being a female in a very male-dominated industry?
I was lucky to have been brought up to be strong minded and to welcome a challenge, but it was still daunting. The lack of accessible information was hard, and, like a lot of children today, my parents didn’t have the financial advantages or knowledge to give me advice and assistance. My mother was very encouraging though and urged me to travel and work abroad to learn other languages and cultures. Working in customer service environments helped me to communicate with people at any level of the business, which built my confidence.
Nowadays, women have much more encouragement to strive for what they want and there is much more information available and accessible to those that need it, along with associations and platforms that champion female aspirations and provide multiple paths to help them achieve their goals.
When did you start your training and did you feel you faced any challenges during training from a female perspective?
I started commercial training in 2003, and I was definitely a minority. I think I only met 8 women during my entire training from Ground School to ATPL (F) completion. Whilst the male cadets were all very supportive, I found the journey fairly lonely. I did end up leaving the first Ground School Course I’d enrolled in because the tutors were all male and pretty unsupportive, but the second school offered a lot more mentoring and there were other girls there which meant we could all help each other.
What obstacles or barriers did you face as you progressed?
There were two main obstacles: financial and gender.
From a financial perspective, there was a distinct lack of loans tailored to the route I wanted to take, at that time a Commercial Pilot wasn’t viewed as a career in the same was that a Lawyer or Doctor would be.
From a gender standpoint, I observed negative attitudes from some ex-military pilot instructors who did not believe women had a place in the cockpit, and that if you didn’t have a university degree then you didn’t deserve to fly. Contrary to this, the men I have flown with since have been the complete opposite – fully supportive of women pursuing piloting careers, and highly valuing our contribution. Thankfully this outweighed the views of the initial instructors, which could’ve otherwise been damaging.
Knowing what you know now, would you still have chosen to be a pilot?
Yes. It’s a difficult, uncertain and sometimes lonely journey, but by putting the hard-work and perseverance in, it’s such a rewarding one. I got to achieve my goal and fly some wonderful aircraft to amazing places, with great companies and fantastic people.
With a bit more guidance, financial viability and a clear and accessible commercial pilot career path, it would remove more barriers for everyone, not just women. Sadly it’s the financial barrier that causes the most obstacles for the aspiring pilots of the future.
How do you think the industry could encourage more women into aviation?
Inspire the next generation with greater advice, guidance and role models. Tangible careers advice is so important. When I was at school, I said I wanted to fly for the Navy, and it was suggested I apply for Cabin Crew. A very rewarding career, but not the one I had asked about.
Things have progressed, but more can always be done to open female minds to the various opportunities that they may not have considered, not just in aviation, but across all industries.
What advice would you give to women thinking about a career as a pilot?
Make sure you look at all the possible avenues that may allow you to move forward with a piloting career, there are far more now than there once was.
Becoming a pilot takes determination, and I don’t necessarily mean for overcoming gender obstacles. My experience of working with men in the cockpit was mostly positive. You’ll need determination to overcome a range of factors - culture hurdles, financial implications, family sacrifices, and the continuous testing, learning and improving throughout your career.
But my advice is to do your homework and don’t be afraid to pursue it!
It is clear that the underlying problems in gender equality must be addressed and that the industry must continue to seek ways to keep building awareness and encourage female talent in to the industry. A collective and committed effort to break down the barriers that have historically characterised piloting careers is critical to widening the pipeline of applicants, and to the industry’s future sustainability and success as a whole.
At AeroProfessional we fundamentally believe in confronting the industry-wide stereotypes that have, for so long, plagued the aviation industry. We welcome to the opportunity to talk to people from any walk of life, any background, and we do so without any preconceived biases. Whether you’re an operator looking to discuss your recruitment needs, or a job-seeker looking for your next career move, we’d love to talk. Simply click here to get in touch with our team of aviation recruitment specialists.