Why are there so few female airline pilots?
Amazing destinations, equal pay and a day job that's never dull, so why aren't more women leaping at the chance to swap the glass ceiling for a spectacular horizon?Featured March 16 Words by Caroline Corcoran
Glancing down at the hundreds of flashing buttons on the dashboard and at the fast-diminishing runway before me, I feel a sense of a rising euphoria...
I rotate the side-stick controller and begin the 15° climb, in increments of three degrees per second, into the air. Soon the morning's stresses are melting away as I cut through a cornflower-blue sky en route to Nice, towards the sweeping coastline of the French Riviera. So it's not without disappointment that, upon landing, I find myself in the same West Sussex office building I ‘departed' from earlier that day. Such is the super-power wielded by a £7m (€9.25m) flight simulator.
It might just be a very expensive, very sophisticated computer game, but simply sitting in the pilot's seat here feels like a privilege, not least because of my gender. While it's no secret that women are underrepresented in many professions - under 10% of UK surgeons are female, for example, and just six CEOs in the FTSE 100 - they are rarer still on the flight deck. Indeed, despite female staff being present at every other point during the passenger journey - check-in, security gate and as cabin crew - you would currently have to board 20 flights before hearing a female voice over the Tannoy. It's something easyJet CEO Carolyn McCall has vowed to turn around.
“We want to encourage more women to join and stay in this interesting, highly skilled and well-rewarded profession,” McCall said back in October, when she pledged to increase easyJet's female pilot intake from six to 12% by 2017. It's a bold promise, but one that's already got off to a bang with the January 2016 launch of the Amy Johnson Flying Initiative. In partnership with the British Women Pilots' Association, easyJet will underwrite the £100,000 loans for six female recruits to get through their training, in a bid to help more female pilots enter the industry. With International Women's Day (8 March) and Women of Aviation Worldwide Week (7-13 March) both taking place this month, it seems like the perfect time to investigate just why so few women are getting their wings - and exactly what it entails.
It's an imbalance that seems to start in the classroom. “Teenagers aren't around pilots in their everyday lives the way they might be around teachers, doctors or train drivers, so there's not a huge amount of awareness,” says one careers teacher from Mill Hill County High School in North London. And it's largely only boys who consider piloting as anything other than a pipe dream.
“I wouldn't compare it to being an astronaut exactly, but to be honest, it feels as unrealistic,” adds 16-year-old student Ellie Walsh, who is currently considering future career options. “The only women I've ever seen working on planes are cabin crew.”
In fact, a recent survey shockingly revealed that a fifth of females believe the only posts open to women on aircraft is cabin crew, an undeniably worrying figure.
One reason for this could be the relative lack of female pilots in popular culture. “It's always portrayed as a masculine job in movies and TV,” says Madeleine Piercey, 14 and a pupil at Thomas More Catholic High School in Crewe. “Pilots are played by men - Denzel Washington in Flight, Leonardo Di Caprio in Catch Me If You Can, Tom Cruise in Top Gun - and I think it subconsciously makes girls feel it's not for us; that we wouldn't be able to deal with the scary situations that can come with the job.”
Our trouble invoking a female equivalent of Top Gun's Maverick or Iceman means that, in many people's minds, female pilots simply don't exist. And Piercey's words uncannily echo the findings of a 2014 study by sociologist Deanne Gibbons, that girls typically view piloting as ‘difficult' and ‘dangerous' and believe they would not be suited to flying as they lack ‘typical pilot traits' of arrogance and overt confidence.
“There's no doubt that when you think pilot, you think ‘male job',” agrees Captain Anja Hansen, 36, a Danish pilot for easyJet. “I was the only woman at my flight school and, while I faced the same challenges as my male colleagues, it meant that any mistakes I made were more easily remembered by the instructors.”
Carlotta Galaffi, 42, an easyJet Captain from Italy, was also the sole woman on her course 16 years ago. “I always had the feeling that more was being asked from me than of the men; like I had to do better than everyone else as some instructors looked at me like I shouldn't have been there. It made me more determined.”
Fortunately, this archaic attitude is fading fast, which is one of the reasons why the time is right for change in the industry.
“People still comment on the fact I'm a woman, but it's not as bad as it was when I first started out at a Spanish company and people walked off the plane because it was a woman in the pilot's seat,” Hansen recalls. “I think it was a cultural thing: men in Spain at the time were more alpha male than in Northern Europe. The attitude today is different. I get far more positive comments from passengers.”
Even in the 21st century, when catching a flight has become as commonplace and convenient as jumping on a bus, there's still something undeniably glamourous about the career. Much of this has to do with how hard it is to earn your stripes. It's a decision that starts at school, but while science and maths have been traditionally favoured in the selection process for aviation - subjects which have a far greater take-up at GCSE or A-level by boys than girls - there are no official restrictions or criteria on applying for flight school.
“One of my colleagues did a degree in history, mine was in psychology and many don't have a degree at all,” says UK-based easyJet Captain Marnie Munns, 41, who became a pilot in 2000. “It's more important to have good communication and multitasking skills, be able to cope well in high-stress situations, think on your feet and absorb technical information quickly.” Munns still gets a kick out of flying, but it's more about a sense of achievement and pride now. “I'm always trying to better how I've flown the day before,” she says.
It takes serious dedication to become a commercial pilot - requiring more than 1500 flying hours and many exams but once you've made it, piloting doesn't have to involve the unsociable hours often attributed to it. Short-haul pilots complete around four flights per day in peak season and two at other times, which means they often have more spare time and flexibility than the average office worker. “Thanks to my shift patterns, I either get to have breakfast with the kids and drop them at school or spend the evening with them, which is brilliant,” says Munns, who juggles being a full-time pilot with parenting a seven-year-old and a four-year old.
In fact, motherhood is a strong wingman for a career in aviation. Expectant mums are offered equivalent on-the-ground positions prior to taking maternity leave, in areas including recruitment and HR, until they're ready to return to the flight deck. But this hasn't always been the case in every country and for every airline, as Captain Christine Debouzy, 56, discovered when she became the first Air France pilot to fall pregnant in 1992.
In something of a landmark case, Debouzy had to fight hard for her right to continue working during her pregnancy. “I worked with the union, my colleagues and Air France medical staff to make vital changes to the law,” she says. “Since then, both national and international regulations have been applied. I'm very proud of what we achieved.” Debouzy, who flew with an all-female crew from Paris to Washington on International Women's Day last year, believes more females should reach for the top jobs.
“If men hold all the leading roles, it becomes a men's world made by men, which has a negative impact on the whole of society,” she says.
Captain Gallafi began flying when her son was one, after a three-year stint as cabin crew, and the initial reaction was not all positive. “Being a woman and a mother, many people were shocked when I told them I was planning to become a pilot. And, as Italians have quite traditional gender views, it took courage to pursue it,” she adds.
“Luckily, I had support from my husband and my mum helped us out a lot with childcare - you make it work just like any other job.”
Of course, few professions are quite so at the mercy of weather patterns. “It means always having an emergency plan ready in case of any unexpected delays to my roster. And also some very flexible babysitters!” she laughs.
To expect young women to invest large amounts of money in their future - training can cost anything up to £100,000, depending on levels of funding from individual airlines - when there are so few female role models to inspire them is a big ask. But, once qualified, aircraft pilots are among the UK's highest-paid workers: entry-level salaries start at £40-50k, with easyJet captains earning up to £146,000, depending on experience. The gender pay gap prevalent in many other professions is also non-existant.
Being part of the female flight renaissance can also be life-changing, to say the least. “Where I'm from, most people settle down near home. If I wasn't doing this job, I'd have moved five miles down the road from my parents,” laughs Danish pilot Hansen. “Instead, I've lived in Spain, London and Germany and experienced so many different cultures. It's given me the travel bug.”
It's a feeling that many more women should look forward to experiencing in the future and Captain Galaffi is resolute about the silver linings. “It wasn't an easy ride, but every day I go to work and I love it,” she says. “One thing is for sure: no one ever regrets becoming a pilot.”