Sex and Piloting

On a flight just before Christmas, my pilot was a woman. I had never thought about sexism in the airline industry – but I instantly realised that it must be an issue because of how unfamiliar the words “this is your captain speaking” over the intercom in a female voice sounded. In fact the issue is a serious one. A little research reveals that the number of women pilots in commercial airlines is about 7,000 out of 115,ooo total according to good estimates (~6%), or about 4,000 out of 130,000 according to bad ones (~3%). These are terrible figures. There can’t be many industries with such a vast gender gap, especially among ones where no one would argue that women are inherently less qualified (whether there are any jobs for which this is genuinely the case is itself doubtful). The numbers are worse when you look at women captains. My flight home from holiday – which, I might as well say, landed very smoothly despite an icy runway and thick fog – was helmed by one of only between 450 – 800 women pilots in the world!

So the statistics are awful. But why? What makes airplane piloting such a sexist occupation? True, it has historically been a realm exclusive to men, and may be slow changing. But so is medicine, law, or any number of other careers, which are far better integrated these days (even if most still have a good way left to go). True, there may be inherent biases to do with pregnancy and mothering which discourage women from entering the field or prevent them succeeding. But again I don’t see this as particularly specific to aviation.

My only explanation (and I welcome alternatives) is that this is particularly strong example of the power of stereotype threat. For those unfamiliar with this, stereotype threat is the well-documented psychological phenomenon defined as “the real-time threat of being judged and treated poorly in settings where a negative stereotype about one’s group applies” (Steele et al, 2002). It has been consistently shown that social groups appear to do better or worse at certain things when they are thinking of themselves as members of a particular group, as opposed to other groups or simply are general individuals. For example, female university students will do just as well on a given maths test as male ones, but if the test asks you to put your gender at the start, they tend to do worse, because women are culturally perceived as worse at maths. The fact is that ability is affected strongly by social identity, and perceived threats to it. (This has also been shown for other social categories, such as race, if you were wondering). I could give a million examples of research that demonstrates this, but if you want a good summary, you could read the first few chapters of Cordelia Fine’s new book Delusions of Gender.

It is certainly documented that many women on flying training courses have had to suffer sexist abuse and other challenges due to their gender, all of which would increase the stereotype threat they would have experienced. According to one account: ‘I had to ignore all the sexist comments from the men, such as: “If God had meant women to fly, he would have put a kitchen in the airplane”‘.

Not only are women badly treated in the industry (or have been in the past), but they suffer huge cultural disincentive to join it. When you have been addressed by a male captain for every flight you’ve ever taken (as I had until last week), piloting may not seem too appealing. Advertising, pop culture, educational material etc all confirm the gender bias in this area. Research shows that people’s desire to participate in a given activity or career is strongly affected by how well they feel they might fit in – essentially because everyone normally seeks to reduce the typical stereotype threat to which they are exposed, eg, by choosing English courses over maths if you’re a girl.

It has also been shown that stereotypes have a habit of getting entrenched and working subconsciously. Once you learn to perceive yourself as a woman, and pilots as men, then it’s hard to even imagine yourself as a pilot, let alone form the desire to try to become one.

To sum up: if your sense of self involves womanliness, and statistics show that this is true for the vast majority of women, then both your ability and desire to succeed in areas you perceive as masculine are (on average) significantly diminished.

And what is more manly than a commercial airline pilot? You only need to watch Catch Me If You Can to get a sense of the cultural image of piloting. Dashing di Caprio thinks he can rule the world if he can only get himself into a pilot’s uniform – and indeed this turns out to be the case. Pilots are the epitome of classy, trustworthy, steely manliness. You need a clear head when you’re in control of a massive metal box several thousand feet in the air, and everyone knows women don’t have clear heads! You need bravery, charisma, reliability and preferably a deep and soothing voice.

This is why I think flying has been so steadfastly unprogressive. Even being a doctor or lawyer has more qualities that can be reconciled with femininity, despite these professions’ ridiculously white-elderly-wealthy-male stereotypes of the past. They’re both about being personable and helping others, for a start. I’m not saying that women really are more personable or keen to help others than men, but this is how they are typically culturally perceived.

Fortunately, even airline piloting is glacially becoming more gender neutral. Some people theorise that most male-dominated careers need to reach a “critical mass” of women (percentage-wise) at which point they rapidly become more accessible to everyone, presumably because their stereotype threat is greatly weakened or removed. I hope soon I won’t be surprised if I am addressed by a female captain when I go on holiday.

1 Comment

  1. clementineb

    Great article. I was talking about it to a friend whose aunt is a pilot. He said that at the beginning of her career she would ask a male steward or co-pilot to talk to the passengers, because she’d noticed that a female voice tended to stress the passengers. After some time, as she acquired experience and maturity, she started speaking to the passengers directly. I think women in these male-dominated professions need a lot of time to internalise the fact that they are *legitimate* and not impostors.

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