Imagine a woman and a man working on a plane. What did you immediately think of? A stewardess and a pilot, right? Who could blame you, when there is just a 1 out of 20 chance to witness a flight, where at least one of the pilots is a woman. AeroTime talked with some of them to find out exactly why we see more women in the cabin than in the cockpit.

Back in the 1986, a spokesperson for the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) said that the reason there were only two women Boeing 747 captains at that time was "because women in aviation are a relatively recent phenomenon and everything in the airline's industry is done by seniority". But times change and with them changes the perception of equal rights, so both genders would be assumed to have somewhat similar numbers in the aviation industry. The ratio, however, is far from 1:1. Let’s take a look at the numbers.

Gloomy 4% on the average

Guess, what 28.6%, 33%, 15,6% represent? That’s right, the percentage of women pilots in three airlines (not your average trivia question, huh?). But can you guess which airlines can boast the respective numbers? Ryanair? Lufthansa? Nope, it’s Cape Air Guam, New England Airlines and Surf Air. Doesn’t ring a bell? Probably because these carriers offer regional routes and their total number of pilots do not exceed a hundred.

Notice the small numbers of female pilots? Yeah, we can barely see them as well.  

However, looking into some household names, the numbers are not that cheery. According to the data, gathered by the International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISWAP), some bigger airlines show much lower digits – Emirates stands with 1.5%, Lufthansa with 6.9%, easyJet with 5% and British Airways employ 5.9% of female pilots. Assuming this, one can’t help but wonder why the ratio is this low.  

A boys’ club like no other

Being a pilot in the 60s and 70s was right up there with being an astronaut. The fact that flying then was a luxury and a number of people who tried such an adventure was truly small probably enhanced the prestige of being a pilot. Looking at aviation-related posters from that time there is a visible division of the roles of men and women in the industry. Women were presented as smiling stewardesses, carrying a tray. Men, however, were depicted with solemn expressions alongside military-inspired narrations to make the job more appealing.


Such a separation might have evoked a sort of fear among women dreaming about piloting a plane. The most common one – it is a boys’ club. "Media reinforces those stereotypes and notions even further by presenting pilots or aviation engineers as always men and their work as 'masculine' (physical and psychological strength, long and nonstandard working hours, high status and prestigious job, high salary, etc)," a representative of European Institute for Gender Equality said in an emailed statement to AeroTime.

Kathryn McCullough, now a retired pilot from Northwest/Delta, said that she had come a long way until receiving a position in Northwest Airlines as their fourth female pilot in 1981.

“There were already sixty or so women at other airlines in 1980s, but Northwest and Delta were not hiring many women, probably because they were staunch military pilots who didn’t believe women could do the job,” McCullough recalls. “The men did not (and many still don’t) want women to fly. I think they felt it was something you had to be macho to do, and the fact that women could do it made them feel less important and damaged their egos.”

Doubt creates a mountain

It’s not difficult to imagine the doubts materialising in a woman’s head when choosing the pilot’s path – leaving the family for a long time, flying to distant places of the world, not seeing your children grow and missing them to the bids.

“Juggling family with my career was challenging but doable. My husband and his aunt cared for our two children while I was gone. I would be gone ten days, then off for three weeks. The kids loved their Aunt Junie, and their dad’s pizza, mac n’ cheese, so it worked for us,” Kathryn McCullough, former Northwest/Delta pilot remembers.


Former Northwest/Delta pilot Kathryn McCullough 

Of course, photographers, travel agents, recruiters, consultants alongside many other positions have similar job conditions and sometimes they work for the better but to jump into any of such environments is a hard decision for women to make. Nevertheless, faith moves the mountains – therefore, dealing with the doubts can be manageable. But how to control the occurrences that do not rely on your actions?

Having children and never coming back again?

While some take women’s right to fly for granted, others had to fight for it. Take Deborah Jane Lawrie who had to win a landmark sex discrimination case against Ansett Airlines in 1980 in order to become a pilot with a major Australian airline. Taking part in SBS television program about people who challenged set practices, Lawrie told that after discovering her true passion for flying, she tried to apply for a job as a commercial pilot.

“I started school teaching because my father had said even though you love flying and you want a job flying, it's not going to happen because women don't fly big aeroplanes around.”

However, after many hours of flying as an instructor, Lawrie applied for a commercial pilot’s position. She didn’t give up after receiving the negative responses – “not strong enough, would panic very easily, would have lots of children and never come back again.” Eventually, her case against Ansett Transport Industries became the first sex discrimination in employment case contested before the Equal Opportunity Board.

“Once I broke the barrier down, I got treated quite well by all of the people who I flew with,” Lawrie recollected after winning the case.

Kathryn McCullough, who flew with Northwest in the 80s, also recalls the roughness of the old days: “There were harder check rides, captains that challenged me every time I entered the cockpit, warnings not to upgrade to larger planes, and other forms of harassment.”


Former Northwest/Delta pilot Kathryn McCullough 

“One captain made me take the Boeing 747 off of the autopilot in flight at 34,000 feet where the air is thinner and the plane is trickier to fly. After I hand-flew it for ten minutes, he put it back on autopilot and went back to go to the bathroom! That made me laugh (and roll my eyes),” McCullough shares one of her more peculiar situation.

The snowball effect

Surely, back in the days, the road was bumpier for female pilots. Maria Pettersson, currently flying with Ryanair, finds the acceptance by the coworkers much more pleasant nowadays: ”I have only experienced positive feedback, from captains I am flying with as well as passengers who often want to give their compliments after landing.”

“When I hear a plane overhead I feel a twinge of love and pride, and I think I can do that I used to do that, so I would say to ones dreaming of flying: don't be left out,” Mary Shipko, now retired first female pilot hired by Hughes Airwest in 1976, shares a sentiment which made a mark for life.

“The more female pilots we become, the more females can see that they can do it too,” is how Ryanair pilot Maria Pettersson encourages women to choose flying as a career.


 Ryanair pilot Maria Pettersson

The macho era seems to be over, but the echo still remains, with the male figure of the pilot engrained in many young minds until today. Only time will tell, if the abundance of positive examples is capable of creating a snowball effect, resulting in more gender diversity in the cockpit. 

Do you think there are other reasons why few women choose the pilot’s profession? We’d love to hear them! Email us at [email protected].