Tackling the “old boys’ network” and helping women into pilot training roles

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This article was originally published on March 7, 2022. 

As the world celebrates International Women’s Day, a new study has revealed lingering sexism in the aviation industry and called for action to help female aviators take up training roles.  

The independent study from the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) and the University of the West of England (UWE) in the UK was commissioned to look into why so few pilot trainers are female and what the barriers are to career progression for female pilots.  

“Has the question of diversity and inclusion gone away during the pandemic? No, it’s come to the forefront. Our industry has had a watershed moment,” Captain Marnie Munns, one of the authors of the report, commented. 

The reports highlights that while only 5% of the global pilot workforce is female, the number taking up training roles are even fewer. In the UK, just under 1% of type rating examiners are women, according to the Civil Aviation Authority.  

“Training is the first point of contact for new entrants into the aviation industry and given its gender profile, conveys a message that this is a male dominated career,” the study states.  

Sadly, the report said while it did not specifically ask about sexism, it still encountered some very concerning examples of sexism and sexual harassment, with respondents frequently citing an “old boys’ network” and a lack of female role models and mentors.   

“It is of grave concern to us that the unacceptable and shocking behavior towards women during initial pilot training, is still happening today. It is a wonder that these women have remained in the industry, although for some, ‘things have got better’ since becoming experienced pilots,” the report states.  

Munns said if the industry wants to attract the best talent it needs to appeal to everyone, irrespective of gender, ethnicity or age and that action needs to be taken now.  

“Change does not happen on its own,” she told an online presentation. “There’s comments in the report that it will take 100 years for gender parity. We need to do something positive now. You cannot actively encourage a diverse group of people onto an industry which does not foster them and encourage them.”  

Building back better 

The report highlights that with the industry rebuilding its operations after the pandemic, there is now “an opportunity to build back with more diversity” and to investigate how the industry can learn from the part-time working models that have been employed during the pandemic.  

In particular, the authors note that many airlines’ requirement for trainers to be full-time has a disproportionate effect on women. 

“Whilst it’s acceptable for a pilot to be working part-time, it doesn’t seem true of the pilot trainer role,” Professor Susan Durbin from UWE Bristol noted during the presentation. “It came out very strongly from men and women that this role should be offered on a part-time basis.” 

In the report, Durbin said the findings show the industry is “a long way” from achieving gender equality.   

“Through this study, we have enabled the voices of men and women in the industry to be heard; I believe it is time for the industry to listen and take urgent action,” she commented.   

The study gathered responses from over 700 airline pilots worldwide. Three quarters of the sample was male, reflecting the under-representation of women in the industry, but their responses also showed they supported their female colleagues, the authors said.  

Many of the male respondents recognized the presence of the “old boys’ network”, with some feeling excluded from it themselves, and said they understood that sexism and sexual harassment was a problem for women. 

Munns also noted that women were hit harder during the pandemic than men, with 62% of the female pilots in survey having been furloughed, compared to only 31% of the male respondents. 

Is the industry failing women?   

The report sets out four key areas where it would like to see airlines and flight schools take action.  

The first is on sexism, sexual harassment and the old boys’ network. The study recommends mandatory gender diversity awareness training and professional standards training at airlines. 

The second concerns the reluctance of airlines and training companies to offer trainer roles on a part-time basis. The study says both men and women would like such roles to be offered on a part-time basis and that airlines and training schools should listen to this.  

The third area deals with the lack of transparency in the recruitment and selection process, with the report showing that often men were given training roles without an interview. The authors recommend companies approach women directly to encourage them to apply and look at targeted recruitment campaigns.  

Finally, the study turns to the lack of female role models and mentors. Current female trainers should be made more visible as role models and a formal mentoring scheme should be set up for female pilots and trainers, especially those in the initial phase of their pilot training.  

Concluding, the study says becoming a pilot and pilot trainer involves much emotional and financial investment and is seen as a vocation.  

“The airline industry is failing many of the women, and some of the men, who follow this vocation and make heavy financial and emotional investments,” the study says, adding that women need more support from their employers and to be treated with respect by both peers and passengers.  


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