8 Misconceptions About Women and Sexism in Aviation

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Image: Getty/John McBride & Company

There are a lot of misconceptions about women in aviation floating around out there. And while the sexism topic gets old for some of you, it remains a conversation that we need to have. Because as much as we’d all like to believe that we’re just beating a dead horse with feminist debates about women in aviation, some of us believe that it’s an issue that’s worthy of attention. And my reading convinces me that we are far from a consensus as to even its existence.

I’m an optimist at heart. I like to believe that most comments that would be deemed as sexist by many aren’t actually meant to be intentionally sexist, or even impolite, and I’ll give most people the benefit of the doubt. And I’d like to believe that I belong in the flying world just as much as the next guy - or girl. For the most part, I think it’s evident that young women these days can do anything they want to do. I’ll be the first to say that women are not, in fact, restricted from participating in the aviation world in any way. I, for one, have never been told that I couldn’t or shouldn’t fly airplanes. But sexism still exists, and there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding it.

Although it can be subtle, sexism in aviation can also be blatant, as I recently discovered while perusing online forums, social media pages and article comments. A recent online search for statistics and opinions about women in aviation and all of the accompanying issues left me a bit surprised.

Upon discovering people’s uncensored thoughts about women in aviation, I quickly realized that there are many misperceptions out there about the challenges – or lack thereof – confronting women who work in a male-dominated environment like aviation.

Below are a few of these misconceptions I came across.

Most of the remarks below are actual comments from men and women that I discovered online. They’re probably a bit surprising to some of us, but then again, maybe not. I certainly didn’t have to look far to find them.

 

1. “Women just don’t like airplanes as much as men.”

It’s clear that men and women are wired differently. We know from research that boys prefer cars and girls prefer dolls. What we still don’t know is how much of the gender qualities we develop early in life are a result of our environment versus biology and genetics. But when it comes to aviation, the supposition that women just don’t like airplanes or are simply uninterested in aviation might be inaccurate. How much of a girl’s like or dislike of aviation stems from exposure or non-exposure? Who’s to say there aren’t more girls and women out there who just haven’t discovered aviation yet? 

 

 2. “Aviation is completely open to women. There’s no problem.”

Yes, you could argue that aviation is “open” to women. But is it really? What does that mean? Of course, a woman can learn to fly if she wants to. But imagine with me for a moment that you’re a 16-year old female who wants to learn to fly. You muster enough courage to go down to the local flight school or FBO, where you walk in and nobody is at the front desk.

You wait, and a male mechanic eventually walks in and walks right by you without saying a word to you. Then, when another employee finally notices you, he or she will assume you are the wife of a pilot, or that you’re there to collect the catering, or to arrange for a courtesy car for your client, or a variety of other non-pilot tasks. Because you don’t fit the profile, it’s assumed that you’re not a pilot or don’t intend to become one. Not the most welcoming environment for a woman. Aviation might be available to women, but it isn’t the most female-friendly environment.  

 

3.  “Women shouldn’t complain. They already get special treatment like scholarships and hiring preferences. If equality is the goal, why should these benefits be available just for women?”

In general, women in aviation don’t want to be treated differently than men.

They’re not looking for handouts or even scholarship money. But there’s a reason for this sort of “special treatment” and it has to do with a long history of civil rights, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which would prevent people from refusing to hire based on age, sex, religion or color. Women get hiring preference at an airline in some cases because it’s society’s attempt at redressing past discrimination, and rightly so. It’s the best we can do. But that’s not the end of the story. Let’s not forget that a female pilot must be qualified for the job, just like any other pilot, and following that, they still must prove themselves among a group of skeptical male copilots, managers, and even passengers. This is perhaps a perceived notion on behalf of women, but in most cases, a failure on any level for a female in a male-dominated world is unforgiving and fuels the preconceived stereotype that women are somehow not as good as men. So while women might get special treatment in some cases, they often still feel the need to work just as hard, if not harder, than the man sitting next to them, in order to earn the respect of their peers and forestall unwarranted criticism in the event of a weak moment.

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 4.  “Women aren’t mechanically-inclined and have trouble learning to fly.”

There is contradictory research on the topic of a male pilot’s abilities and personality traits versus a female pilot’s abilities and personality traits. Some research suggests that women are less mechanically inclined than men, but whether this is a result of nature or nurture - there is evidence of both -  is still a question that nobody seems to be able to answer definitively.

And while men have generally been said to be better at math and spatial abilities, women who are exposed to math and spatial problems have been known to compete on a level equal to their male peers. Another thing to keep in mind is that subjects at which men are thought to excel - math, systems, and spatial ability - encompass just a small portion of the skills needed for flying an airplane; there’s also decision making, judgment, teamwork, navigating, problem solving and communicating. And if it’s true that women are better at listening, less likely to act impulsively or carelessly, and are better at multi-tasking, then that makes the idea that learning to fly is more difficult for women a pretty outdated one.  

 

5. “Sexism wouldn’t exist in aviation if we didn’t keep bringing the topic up for discussion.”

Unfortunately, sexism, like crime, poverty, ignorance, and prejudice of every stripe, doesn’t disappear just because we decide to ignore it.

 Ignorance is only bliss for the privileged, in this case.

 

6. “There is no evidence of sexism at all. If women don't feel welcome in aviation, that’s their problem.”  

Sadly, there are many examples of sexism in today’s aviation environment - some very recent - like Air Canada's problem with nude photos of women being left in the flight deck.

 And, even today, there are members of the general public who are still uncomfortable with the role of a female pilot in the flight deck. Sexism exists. It’s a problem. There’s a reason the conversation keeps coming up. 

 

7.  “If a woman is offended by a nude photo of another woman or a dirty joke, then she’s emotionally unstable and shouldn’t be a pilot.”

It's often said that some girls just can't take a joke. A woman's reaction to a comment or joke by peer may come across as defensive or even overreactive in some cases, but here's the thing: We should all be offended by rude behavior, bullying, intimidation, or simply bad taste.

There's really just no place for negative or offensive behavior in a professional environment (or otherwise, really) and the response to this behavior isn't the problem; the problem is the behavior itself. Second to this, it should be noted that being offended by bad behavior in no way detracts from a person's skill as a pilot. Being offended doesn't mean that a person is unstable or incompetent. In a professional environment like the flight deck, decency should be expected, not checked at the gate. 

And after all, isn't the type of person who stands up to rude or indecent behavior exactly the type of pilot we want flying our airplane?

 

 

8. “We need more women in aviation.”

There’s a big push to encourage more women in aviation, along with STEM programs in general. There are a lot of people that believe that the industry needs more women. But why? What benefit do women bring to the aviation environment that men don’t or can’t bring? If women and men are going to be on an even playing field, then why exactly should we be catering to women?

It might be truer to say that we need more people in aviation. With a looming pilot shortage and a struggling general aviation industry, we could use more qualified pilots in general. If there’s an untapped market of females out there that can - and want to - ameliorate that pilot shortage and even the playing field at the same time, then why not? But we probably don’t need more women in aviation just for the sake of needing more women.

We probably don’t need to market specifically to women or entice women into aviation - or any other career field wherein they are underrepresented - just because the scale is imbalanced. We do need to expose young women to opportunities and eliminate barriers that do exist. If we do no more than that, women will choose to enter the field to their level of interest and excel in that field to the level of their ability. Once we’ve exposed young girls and women to aviation in a way that equals the exposure that boys and young men receive, it’s up to those young girls and women to step up to the plate - if they want to.

 

Women don't really want to continue having this debate, which is why you'll see many of us shying away from conversations about sexism. In particular, women who are already involved in aviation tend to be strong, intelligent women who don't have the time or inclination to discuss sexism, either because they've risen above it in their own way, or because they haven't experienced it themselves, or maybe because they'd just rather not call more attention to the gender issues. But as I discovered, there are still some wildly inaccurate views out there, and other various opinions that while perhaps subtle, tend to contribute to the lack of women who become involved in aviation. 

It's true that today, more than ever, a young girl has access to opportunities that many girls didn't have before. And it's true that a female who wants to enter the world of aviation won't encounter much, if any, resistance. But there are remnants of sexism and various other misconceptions about women in aviation that linger still, and those are misconceptions that shouldn't be ignored.