Tammie Jo Shults is commercial aviation’s latest hero. So why aren’t there more pilots like her?
The Southwest Airlines captain, praised for her cool handling of an April 24 depressurization and emergency landing in Philadelphia after the Boeing 737’s engine blew apart mid-flight, is still an anomaly in the airline industry.
While women make up roughly half of cabin crew, among pilots that ratio slides to just 5.2 percent, according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots. There’s a larger share of women in the Saudi workforce or Indian boardrooms than in the cockpits of U.S. commercial planes.
What’s most remarkable about that statistic is how persistent it’s been. Amelia Earhart, Bessie Coleman, Pancho Barnes and Jean Batten first took to the skies almost a century ago. Chief executive officers Carolyn McCall and Jayne Hrdlicka rose to the top of Easyjet and Qantas Airways’ Jetstar carrier in, respectively, 2010 and 2012 — but women still make up just 5.8 percent of Easyjet’s pilots and 5 percent at Qantas.
The reasons typically cited for this disparity don’t come close to excusing it.
Pilots certainly spend long hours away from home, but that doesn’t create the same gender imbalance among cabin crew. Training as a pilot and maintaining a commercial pilot’s license can be expensive and time-consuming, typically requiring 1,500 hours of flight time at the outset and one takeoff and landing every month after that — but long-hours cultures don’t hold women back to nearly such an extent in other careers, such as finance and politics.
Seniority among pilots also tends to correspond to hours spent in the air, so the hierarchy is likely to be dominated by older male employees long after change starts at the bottom. Still, if senior men skew hiring and promotions toward people who resemble them, that’s an issue of workplace discrimination and should be addressed as such.
In an industry where Cathay Pacific Airways ditched a skirts-only rule for women flight attendants just last month and Singapore Airlines is still touting the “Mad Men”-esque charms of the “Singapore Girl,” it’s probably not all that surprising antediluvian attitudes persist.
As recently as 2010, Women in Aviation International’s Australian president, Tammy Augostin, recalls an instructor commenting that “If women were meant to fly airplanes, the skies would be pink.” She said, “Younger people are certainly very supportive, but there is still that older mindset there.”
Now is as good an opportunity as there’s been in years for change. With air travel booming and 637,000 more pilots needed over the next two decades, airlines already have a massive recruitment task ahead. Adding quotas and funding to encourage more women to join flight schools — as Qantas is doing with a commitment to double intake over the coming decade — should be seen as part and parcel of that process.
Airlines also need to do far more to improve their family policies, which typically reflect the priorities of the male-dominated unions who negotiate them and which in some countries lack even basic provision for paid parental leave.
This isn’t just about altruism and fairness. The skill of flying a modern commercial plane is in large part a matter of good decision-making under stress. Multiple studies over the years have shown women tend to take fewer risks than men, a quality that we would all like to see in our pilots.
There are sound self-interested reasons for carriers to redress the imbalance in the cockpit.
David Fickling is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He wrote this for Bloomberg View.