When two children, a six-year-old girl and a slightly older boy, visited her flight deck last week, British Airways pilot Aoife Duggan asked if they would like to fly planes too. The boy said yes but the girl demurred, saying: “I think I’d like to be an air hostess – boys are pilots.” A surprised Duggan says: “I was like, ‘No! Come and sit in my seat, wear my hat.’ ”
Four decades after the first female pilot started work for a commercial airline, there are still relatively few women sitting in Duggan’s seat. Of the 3,500 pilots employed by British Airways, just 200 are women, yet the airline still employs the highest proportion of female pilots of any UK airline. Globally, around 4,000 of the 130,000 airline pilots are women, according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots. Fewer still are captains – worldwide, there are around 450.
How much has changed since Yvonne Pope Sintes became Britain’s first commercial airline captain in 1972? Struggling to explain why so few women have followed her, she suggests domestic responsibilities. “Women are just as good as men, but they seem to have more domestic issues and not all of them want to devote themselves to a full-time job.”
After publishing her book, Trailblazer in Flight, late last year, she says: “I actually met someone, just a few months ago, who said he didn’t know that there were any women pilots. I couldn’t believe it.”
When Sintes, now 83, started her career, airlines actively barred women, and although she was determined, it took her nearly two decades from joining the airline industry to making it as a commercial pilot.
Inspired by watching the planes while growing up near Croydon airport, she tried to join the RAF after school but they wouldn’t take women. So she became a flight attendant and gained her private pilot licence with the Airways Aero Club, which offered flying lessons to airline staff. After she qualified as an instructor, she became an air traffic controller. She says her male colleagues “didn’t like me at all” – they thought she was just doing it to prove a point as one of only two female air traffic control workers in the country. Airlines did not accept women as commercial pilots at the time: “I was told it was not their policy and so it continued for a while.”
Eventually, in 1965, she became a pilot with Morton Air Services, one of the early British airlines, and then a captain with Dan-Air. At Morton, she says, around half of her colleagues were hostile to the idea of a woman: “Someone actually said they’d resign if a woman joined. Unfortunately, he didn’t.” Later, it was the passengers who exhibited prejudice.”The men always looked slightly taken aback. The stewardesses had a lovely time watching their reactions. The female passengers were initially a bit scared.”
According to Aoife Duggan and her older sister Cliodhna, who is also a pilot with British Airways, reactions to their gender – either negative, or just simple surprise – are more likely to come from passengers than colleagues. Only a couple of years ago, at her previous job for an airline in Asia, says Aoife, one man took one look at her and her female co-pilot and got off the plane. “In Vietnam or China quite often you’d get staff at the airport who would rather speak to the male person on the flight deck [regardless of rank]. I think it’s because they’re not used to seeing women in positions of power.”
Cliodhna says she still sees some passengers’ surprise. “We’ve had pretty awful weather recently. My last landing was in Gatwick last week and it was particularly turbulent… one of the passengers, as they were getting off said: ‘Oh my god, you look so small, I can’t believe you just landed this giant plane.’
“I think a lot of passengers, especially older ones, have the image of a pilot being a man in his 50s, so when they see a young woman, they seem surprised. I find it’s often women who say something, rather than men.”
For both women, flying was a part of their childhood – their mother was a flight attendant, and their father was an instructor who went on to become an airline pilot. They grew up around the flying club. “There were some women at the club,” says Cliodhna. “I was aware that there were women flying and I didn’t see my gender as a bar.” Aoife, seven years younger, grew up seeing her older sister’s career path and decided to follow.
Why do they think so few women go into flying? “A lot of the time it’s a matter of younger girls not being made aware that it’s a career option open to them,” says Aoife. “It’s not the kind of thing people talk about in schools. You get young boys who say they want to be a pilot or an astronaut, whereas girls are not encouraged that way. And if they’re not told from a young age that it’s a possibility then they don’t keep hold of that idea.”
The current crop of female pilots have little time for those who think that the hours and time away from home put women off a career as a commercial pilot. “It’s the same working lifestyle as cabin crew and we have 15,000 cabin crew, the majority of whom are female,” says Cliodhna. And pilots, particularly as their careers progress, have a degree of flexibility over the days or routes they work, she adds.
Katherine Hodge, 37, started her first airline job in 2005 and has been a pilot with Virgin for the past year. She says she has only ever experienced “positive comments and big smiles. I’ve never had a negative reaction.”
In 2009, the advertising watchdog received 29 complaints from people saying Virgin’s TV advert – featuring glamorous female flight attendants flanking a male pilot – was sexist (the Advertising Standards Authority ruled it wasn’t). In reality, says Hodge: “Any crew that you look at – I mean cabin crew and flight crew – you see a large mix of men and women.” A third of Virgin’s cabin crew are male, for instance. On a recent flight, apart from one man, the plane’s entire crew – including three on the flight deck – were women. “That was a fun day.”
For the past couple of years, British Airways has been trying to increase its recruitment of women. “What we’re after is the best person for the job and if we’re only looking at half the population then we’re clearly missing a trick,” says Captain Dave Thomas, BA’s chief pilot and head of training. They are having some success – the number of female candidates for jobs went from 5% to 15% in the past couple of years. Thomas thinks the lack of women is mainly a cultural problem that needs to be tackled at an early age. “We did a little bit of research, surveying children between the ages of six and 12, and I think it came out as number two on the boys’ list of top jobs but I think girls don’t necessarily think of it as an option.”
Does he think sexism exists in terms of women’s career progression? “Because of the way pilots generally progress, most airlines are based on a seniority system, so it is about how long you’ve been in the job. As long as you keep up the same standard – all pilots get trained and tested – then there’s no reason why gender would be a factor.”
“I can’t recommend it highly enough,” says Hodge of her job. “There is a lot of flexibility within becoming a pilot, whether you want to be an instructor or a commercial pilot, or work in regional jets and live in the Channel Islands, or work for a cargo airline. I can’t imagine doing anything different.” – By Emine Saner © Guardian News and Media 2014
Image – AFP