Unless you happened to be flying on March 8, when several airlines — including Air India and EasyJet — operated all-female flight crews in token acknowledgement of International Women's Day, it's very likely that the last plane you were on was flown by a man. Worldwide, only three percent of pilots are women and only a total of 450 women are captains, a number that, as The Telegraph points out "could easily fit into an Airbus A380."
So why are so few women entering the profession? Could it be that they (and we) are conditioned to believe that flying a plane is a man's job?
In a 2014 poll of 2,000 women conducted by British Airways, 63 percent said that when they were growing up, they were put off the idea of becoming a pilot "for reasons including a lack of visible role models and being told it was a man’s job." That's according to the Guardian, which spoke to several pilots whose experiences support the poll's findings.
"Sabeena Yosuf, a captain for BMI, said her careers advisor told her to think about something else when she said she wanted to be a pilot." Easyjet captain Marnie Irwin-Munns added: “I went to give a talk at a school and the teacher said, ‘Oh the boys will love this.’ I said, ‘The girls will too!’”
Stories of discrimination aimed at the early female flight pioneers abound. Yvonne Pope Sintes, who became the U.K.'s first commercial pilot in 1972, told the BBC about the regressive attitudes she came up against when "one of the pilots said he would resign if a woman joined, but fortunately he didn't." Emily Howell Warner, who was told that "girls don’t fly jets," but the became first female captain in the U.S. in 1976, recalls an early moment in her career when a captain told her, "I’m flying today, so don’t touch anything on the airplane."
Things hadn't improved by 1978 when Air Canada's first female pilot was asked by a TV reporter: “How do you manage to fly despite the ravages of pre-menstrual tension?”
Unfortunately things haven't gotten a whole lot better since. An EasyJet pilot recently told the Telegraph,“I’ve been asked where the captain is. You’re looking at her, I say.”
Also witness, as you cringe, this Daily Mail op-ed in which the writer (a woman) divulges her prejudice against female pilots on the grounds that "strong men" make her feel safe. The writer evokes the old menstruation cliche and claims that women "are more prone to being flustered." With such sexist articles being published in widely read publications, it might make you wonder how gender stereotypes can ever be challenged.
Fortunately the social media age has brought attention to contemporary role models. Women pilots — including Maria Pettersson, Lindy Kats and Eser Aksan Erdogan — are taking to Instagram to inspire other women and smash those stereotypes. As well as posting Instagram updates, Dutch pilot Eva Claire Marseille runs a blog about life as a pilot. Yet, even she is not shielded from chauvinism. In a blogpost earlier this year, she described an encounter with a "rude middle-aged man."
It went like this: "‘You? Pilot? You have got to be joking! This does not feel right. Tell me, do you even know the left from your right?’" But she crafted the perfect response. "‘Left, right? Who needs to know about that? I got my pilot license when I found it in a pack of cornflakes. Enjoy your flight sir.’" And that's how you shut down a chauvinist.
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