8 Misconceptions About Women and Sexism in Aviation

Pilot and plane

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. 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.

Although it can be subtle, sexism in aviation can also be blatant. An online search for statistics and opinions about women in aviation and all of the accompanying issues left us a bit surprised.

“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. When it comes to aviation, though, 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?

“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.

Imagine with me for a moment, though, 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. Since 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.

“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.

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.

“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.

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.

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.

“Sexism Wouldn’t Exist in Aviation If We Didn’t Keep Bringing the Topic up for Discussion”

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.

“There Is No Evidence of Sexism at All. If Women Don't Feel Welcome in Aviation, That’s Their Problem”

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. 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. 

“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 a peer may come across as defensive or even overreactive in some cases, but 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, and the response to this behavior isn't the problem; the problem is the behavior itself. 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. 

“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. 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.