Women & Aviation: Still No Real Change

By Scott Spangler on January 2nd, 2011

xx-surveyAs part of the conversation on the AOPA survey on why students drop out of aviation, we got an e-mail from Dr. Penny Rafferty Hamilton,  Ph.D. She had recently  completed a two-year research project that led to Teaching Women to Fly, which shares the results.

And they are depressing.

What makes them such a downer is not just the scarcity of female pilots, who are just 6 percent of the pilot population. It’s that their numbers have not grown, despite 20 years of trying by Women in Aviation International and other groups and individuals.

Like the dropout rate, this static, single-digit aviation participation by roughly half the population is another indictment against the industry’s rep of being innovative and forward looking, forward thinking, and forward acting. It is further  evidence that aviation tradition is impeding its progress.

The survey, supported in part by grant from the Wolf Aviation Fund, talked to 157 female pilots, 54 of them in training. To be honest, the results, itemizing the barriers to female aviation participation, are little different from those discussed at the inaugural Women in Aviation Symposium, held (if I remember correctly) in 1990 at Embry-Riddle’s Prescott, Arizona, campus, where its founder, Peggy Chabrian, was dean of students.

The most interesting part of the survey is the list of 101 Ideas to Increase Women’s Success in General Aviation, which is distilled into a Top Ten. All the ideas were derived from the 294 surveys and interviews, which also complied the Top 10 Barriers That Stop Women From Learning to Fly.

What is surprising about this list is not that a “Lack of money for general aviation flight training” is No. 1. It is that the nine items that follow all easily fit the the broader categories of educational quality and customer service delineated in the AOPA results. Addressing them will not only make aviation more appealing to women, it will make becoming a pilot more efficient and economical for all who hold the dream.

Teaching Women to Fly tacitly agrees that the cost of flying, while No. 1, on the list, isn’t the preeminent challenge. 2011 is the centennial of the first pilot’s license earned by a woman, Harriet Quimby. To celebrate, Dr. Penny offered a goal of increasing the female percentage of the pilot population by 1 percent. Doing the match, she points out that this will require the certification of just 420 women. But with aviation’s dropout rate, which she gives as 70 percent, to get those 420 new female pilots means 1,400 women must start training.

Certainly, men and women learn differently, but the same is true among individuals of the same sex. It all comes down to the school environment, the relationship between students and teachers. In the additional responses from the male CFIs surveyed, one offered 10 items of additional wisdom that would benefit everyone in aviation regardless of experience. –Scott Spangler


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9 Responses to “Women & Aviation: Still No Real Change”

  1. Bill Says:

    I was surprised to read the top 10 list. It included items that sound more like “a man’s impression on why women stop learning to fly.” I wouldn’t have expected the women that start learning to fly be put off by their own perceived lack of skill or experience in mechanical system, map reading, fear of flying, etc.

    It appears that any potential instructor would do well to make some kind of assessment of each student (male or female) to see which areas need a little more TLC in the training curriculum.

  2. Amy Laboda Says:

    Bill, I think that the top 10 list was written by a male instructor. The tone of it feels that way. Though many of the ideas are valid, the tone is quite off-putting to a mature female.

  3. Bill Says:

    That makes sense.

  4. Scott Spangler Says:

    Yes, the Top 10 was written by a male CFI, but many of the items would benefit all student pilots reguardless of their sex.

  5. @williamAirways Says:

    Has it occurred to anyone that perhaps women in general are just not interested in aviation and hence, the low percentage representation? #justsaying

    Don’t read too much into it. I think women should be more involved but the majority of the women that I know (and don’t know), when queries about taking up flight lessons to become a pilot, have no interest in it. Sure, I get the “that’s so cool that you’re a pilot” party line, but they have zero desire to do it themselves. That’s been my experience, despite any coaxing, bribing, or offering of free flight instruction.

    Perhaps some activities are simply more appealing to women than men. I certainly would not consider taking up knitting. And before the hate comments get blasted on this, ask yourself, when was the last time you saw a man knitting or talk about learning how to knit. There will be exceptions for sure, but I suspect they are in the minority. The point I’m trying to make is that perhaps 6% is as good as it’s going to get, plus or minus a point or two.

  6. Aviation News January 4, 2011 :: N8JW Says:

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  7. Scott Spangler Says:

    William, you make a good point. Perhaps women have always been a bit smarter then men in seeing little future in becoming a pilot for fun or profit. And the long decline in student starts and the overall pilot population is the result of men figuring out what women have already discerned.

    Instead of flying, women have increased their numbers in a wide variety of fields, and that will only continue as they are, increasingly, the majority on college campuses.

    Still, female or male, a certain number of people are incurably infected with aviation, so you may well be right that 6 percent is as good as it will get.

    But that figure depends on the total population. As the total continues to shrink through attrition and lack of interest, if the number of femals remains the same, its percentage of the whole will increase.

  8. Jenn Says:

    A few years ago I worked at a small FBO in NJ. I was a private pilot, working towards my Instrument Rating. One day, a gentleman came in and asked to speak to a pilot about flight lessons. I told him I could help him and asked him what questions he had. He looked at me and said, “No, I’d like to speak to a pilot.” I wasn’t surprised. Most people assumed I was just a secretary or desk girl. And this was only a few years ago!

  9. Anne Armstrong Says:

    As a jet pilot for twenty two years, I feel I have to say that the Top Ten Reasons list is a bunch of happy horseshit. Most of those apply to men, too. So, if you’re going to write with authority about what is keeping women out of aviation, kindly do so with women in mind. While I actually see some merit in the “Mars vs. Venus” gripe, most of the other rationales are full of hot air. The fact of the matter is that aviation just isn’t viewed as an interesting career avenue — like plumbing, auto mechanics or taxi driving. You just don’t see women doing it ’cause it ain’t on their radar to start with. It’s all about education and enculturation, in my humble but very experienced opinion.

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