By Marisa Garcia
December 22, 2018
Brazilian airline GOL pilot Gabriela Carneiro Duarte (L) and her co-pilot prepare to take off on an all female crew flight to mark International Women's Day at Tom Jobim international airport, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on March 8, 2017.
Credit: YASUYOSHI CHIBA/Getty Images

Aviation has been a man’s game for decades — despite women’s significant contributions from the beginning — but now aviation leaders say they want to ensure more leading roles for women.

The “boys club” of aviation is a result of many decades of neglect, ignoring or diminishing women’s contributions, creating artificial hurdles and sending mixed-messages to young girls, especially in advertising.

The fact is that women have played a pivotal role in the growth of aviation from the beginning, and particularly during times of war. They have piloted, helped build and maintained aircraft, even helped build the systems that keep aircraft flying safely.

Many people know of Amelia Earhart, whose mysterious disappearance while crossing the Pacific Ocean continues to garner speculation, but other women who accomplished great things in aviation are, sadly, less well known.

Willa Beatrice Brown was the first African American woman to earn her pilot’s license in 1938 and a commercial pilot’s license in 1939. She was also the first African American woman officer to serve in the US Civil Air Patrol and the first woman in the US who was qualified both as a pilot and as an aircraft mechanic. She even helped found the Cornelius Coffey School of Aeronautics. In her spare time on the ground, Brown was also the first African American woman to run for Congress.

We’d bet you’ve heard of Chuck Yeager, the first person to break the sound barrier, but have you heard what Chuck Yeager had to say about Jacqueline Cochran?

Chuck Yeager on Twitter:

Cochran earned her pilot’s license in three weeks back in 1932. She was the first woman to break the sound barrier in 1953, flying an F-86 aircraft. She broke more speed records than any other flyer during her career. Cochran also helped organize the Women Airport Service Pilots (WASP), and contributed to a number or respected aviation organizations throughout her career. She was even a special aeronautical consultant to NASA.

As for Pancho Barnes, nobody could keep her down. This daredevil pilot broke speed records of her own and performed stunts that would frighten most male pilots out of the cockpit. She was also the first woman stunt pilot to land a role in Hollywood, fittingly in Howard Hughes’s aviation epic "Hell’s Angels."

There are many, many other women who have reached the limits of the skies and broken barriers, but you wouldn’t know it looking around at many parts of today’s airline industry, which sometimes seems stuck in a tiresome, everlasting episode of Mad Men.

There are too few women pilots today (only 4.4% of all U.S. pilots are women) and female airline CEOs are nearly as difficult to find as Waldo in a crowd. Though, Air France did just become the first major airline to appoint a female CEO.

The most common face of women in aviation is the flight attendant—an important career that requires complex skills to ensure the comfort and safety of passengers, but which is often demeaned and even endangered by sexist attitudes.

Helping Women Rise

There is push back from all corners, both out of a concern for equality and for economic reasons. Airlines now realize that they are going to run critically short of the “manpower” they need to grow, and are making a priority of recruiting and training more women to take charge.

It helps that the Secretary General of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), Dr. Fang Liu, is an uncompromising woman herself and has made gender equality in aviation a priority. During the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) Annual General Meeting in Sydney this June, she addressed the gender imbalance directly.

“Air transport connects people, cultures and businesses across the globe, and strengthens socio-economic development worldwide, but at the same time it has not been very successful at providing an open, inclusive working environment for women,” she said.

“In China ... we have a proverb which states that ‘Women hold up half the sky.’ But in aviation today, whether we are talking pilots or airline CEOs, women are only making up one twentieth of these positions,” she added.

The Secretary General encouraged aviation to tackle disparity both because it is the right thing to do and because it is in their self-interest.

Aviation has listened. This September, IATA announced that it was participating in a five-stakeholder partnership with the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), Airports Council International (ACI), International Aviation Women’s Association (IAWA), and Korn Ferry Civil Aviation Practice that will study how aviation can recruit and advance more women to leadership positions. The “Soaring Through the Glass Ceiling” initiative will look at what industry factors are keeping women from rising to the top and recommend best practices for a more diverse workplace.

It’s a slow start, and well past time, but economic pressures might finally rule the day.

Some airlines have seen the writing on the wall.

easyJet was one of the first airlines to acknowledge the importance of getting women excited about a career in aviation. It launched the Amy Johnson Flying Initiative in 2015, which sets a target that 20% of the airlines new cadet pilots would be female by 2020. Amy Johnson was a pioneering aviator herself, and the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia in 1930.

easyJet also took on the Mad Men trope of male pilots and female flight attendants in August with its "Hey Hollywood! Catch up if you can’ campaign." The video points out that 99% of pilots featured in movies are men.

easyJet is also encouraging more girls to think of careers in the skies by sponsoring an Aviation badge for Brownies in Girlguiding (the UK’s version of Girl Scouts).

It’s been 115 years since the Wright Brothers took their first flight, but women aren’t much better off today than they were at the beginning of aviation. Like the rest of society, aviation must learn that a lot is lost when women are reduced to dolls.

One example is a famous ‘Rosie the Riveter’, Norma Jeane Dougherty, who worked on an advanced drone program during World War II. You probably don’t know her for that work: after the war she changed her name to Marilyn Monroe.

Another example is the woman who co-created a secure frequency-hopping radio signal that supports Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth—technology that plays an important role in modern aviation. Like Norma Jeane, you’d maybe only know Hedy Lamarr as a Hollywood bombshell.

Can the industry that broke the sound barrier finally break the gender barrier? It’s going to be a difficult climb, but if aviation can rise above false assumptions and sexist attitudes it will come out stronger and we can all travel further.