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  • Writer's pictureRachel Miller

Why Women Pilots Need to Fly with Women Pilots

Why women pilots need to fly with women pilots, at least for some of her training...

Aviation is a male dominated industry, and too many women believe that aviation is inaccessible to them. Young women who have never seen a woman pilot, been encouraged to pursue aviation by anyone, and who learn that when someone says “pilot” they are most likely talking about a man, will grow into a woman who believes that aviation is for men or that the job is out of her realm of possibilities, at the very least.

“The adage of ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ rings true: when gender stereotypes are ingrained by the age of 7, and passengers so rarely see female pilots, in the media or on flights themselves, no wonder the proportion of women in aviation has been remarkably slow to increase.” Source.

Representation Matters

Think about it; have you ever heard a pilot referred to as a ‘male pilot’? No, but we often hear the description ‘female pilot’. That is because the majority does not need an adjective to describe them, but the minority does. Even though aviation is more accessible than ever, the percentage of women in aviation has only increased incrementally over decades largely due to this idea that aviation is for men.

When a woman does decide that she can, too, become a pilot, she is often left feeling ostracized and facing obstacles that her counterparts will never fully understand. This is why it is vital that women seek out other women, fly with women flight instructors and co-pilots, and create a community that would otherwise not be there.

Psychology Today posted an article stating that “positive media representation can be helpful in increasing self-esteem for people of marginalized groups (especially youth)” and that representation can help reduce stereotypes of underrepresented groups. Solution? Fly with women, post and follow media featuring women pilots, share stories of women pilots.

Debunking Stereotypes for Women

“She’s only here because she’s a woman.” If you’ve ever experienced a ‘boy’s club’, you’ll know why it's important to squander stereotypes that keep the division alive, and support and encourage women’s success in the process. There is a belated worldwide effort by companies who have failed to prioritize diversity to now prove that they’ve valued diversity all along by now employing a greater percentage women. This has raised the question, if we value diversity over best candidates for a job, we decrease overall competence of pilots. The truth is, that pilots are held to a unwavering performance standard which requires all pilots to have skills and knowledge that maintains safety. Any woman that is hired for any professional pilot job is hired because she is qualified and up to standards, unrelated to sex or race.

“Pilot is a man’s job” is clearly an outdated statement, but could you believe that in 2022 some people are still saying that they’d rather have a male pilot than a female pilot? The fallacy not only comes from the mental image of a white man in a uniform with shoulder stripes when one imagines the word “pilot,” but also that women are perceived to lack the skills or knowledge-base required for the job, a belief that is wholly untrue.

Pilots must have authority, assertiveness, decisiveness - characteristics that are not considered feminine. The misconception that women can't and shouldn't have these leadership qualities likely leads to experiences similar to an anonymous regional airline pilot who stated,

"[My biggest obstacle is] by far not being taken seriously and talked over. There's been several times before a [simulator] session where the instructor would only address my male sim partner, not me. I constantly feel like I have to prove myself... Flying with other women would have helped so I could know how to manage the situation before it happened. I was blindsided the first few times [I was ignored and talked over]. Having other women's insight and knowing their experiences would've made me feel not as alone."

It is vital that women fly with other women in order to have inspirational role models that have had similar experiences and faced the same obstacles to help other women on their paths.

“Feminine” Skills Devalued

Traditionally feminine skills, or ‘soft skills,’ are considered less valuable than ‘hard skills.’ Already, the linguistics of ‘soft skills’ elicits a mistakenly negative connotation because it implies that skills - communication, leadership, collaboration, adaptability, empathy - are the opposite of “hard”; They are not strong, absolute, definitive.

Ironically, its the undervalued soft skills that make a company successful. A business must have leadership, effective communication, teamwork, etc., and while these skills might not be measurable in terms of sales, it creates happy customers who feel heard, ensures a lower turnover rate with employees, and creates the very foundation for the company culture.

Furthermore, the PTS requires all CFIs to understand Fundamentals of Instructing which emphasizes human behavior, including anxiety that a student may feel in unknown situations like learning stalls, steep turns, or landings. The Aviation Instructor's Handbook says, "Repression is the defense mechanism whereby a person places uncomfortable thoughts into inaccessible areas of the unconscious mind....For example, a learner pilot may have a repressed fear of flying that inhibits his or her ability to learn how to fly."

An instructor needs to have an exceptional ability to create space for empathy to encourage comfortability and confidence in their students. Women instructors are likely to understand how to help other women students and pilots because they have had similar fears and learn in similar ways. Aviation business owner and pilot said,

"Women tend to request more ground knowledge before getting in the airplane. It’s important that women students experience flying with women flight instructors who are more likely to understand where they are coming from.”

This is likely due to the more risk-averse nature of women, craving more information before somewhat impulsively jumping in the left seat. For likely the same reasons that men's car insurance rates are higher than women's, women are more risk-averse and thoughtful before making decisions.

I have (and many other women have) been admonished for making no-go decisions. Doesn’t risk-averse just mean… safer? We know there are innate risks in flying, and isn’t the whole point of our many checklists, acronyms, and procedures to mitigate risks? Most accidents start with a trail of decisions starting on the ground before the engine was even started.

Emotions Matter

"While most would like to think that our decisions are made logically and rationally, research supports that decision making is predominately guided by our emotions. For instance, in studies of patients with damage to the orbitofrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls emotions, patients displayed severe impairments when making real-life decisions, despite remaining unimpaired intellectually and on traditional neuropsychological measures. Ultimately, anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise are the driving forces of humans making emotionally based and driven decisions." Source.

There is a reason why the E in IMSAFE stands for emotions… Emotions affect the safety of everyone on board the aircraft. There is a reason why the PHAK risk assessment matrix asks, “How are you feeling today? A little off?” There is a reason why we emphasize hazardous attitudes and their anecdotes. There is a reason why AC 60-22 clearly implies that life events such as divorce, change in residence, change in HABITS, and even change in SOCIAL ACTIVITIES will affect safety in flight. There's a reason why the FOI emphasizes human behavior and motivations.

Most of our decisions everyday are emotional, not logical; even if we tell ourselves that we are making the most pragmatic decision, that doesn’t make it true.

Flying with a woman who has been encouraged throughout her whole life to practice "soft skills" like patience, empathy, and intercommunication will be helpful in any situation that involves emotion, AKA literally any situation. Having already experienced what her women students are going through, a woman CFI will be likely to preemptively offer valuable information and solutions.

What the Future Holds

Women face such specific obstacles in aviation that flying with another women who has overcome these challenges is absolutely warranted. It's important that we find community in each other, ask one another about our experiences, and stand united.

While the culture of aviation is slowly shifting as more women and people of color join the flying community, the most change will occur when we all feel welcomed, encouraged, guided. This will not exist unless we can support each other, which first requires finding each other in a sea of predominantly white male pilots.

Flying with other woman has given me encouragement, one-on-one advise for dealing with fears, stereotypes and treatment due to my gender, and inspiration by showing me what is possible for a woman pilot. I would encourage any woman to seek out flight schools with female flight instructors, join the women's Facebook communities, and ask all the questions! Any obstacle you face, another woman has overcome.
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