Why Are There So Few Female Pilots?

Identifying the barriers that stop women from flying.

Amelia Earhart's pilot's license (dated May 16, 1923), only the 16th issued by the FAA to a female pilot. (Photograph: 99's Museum of Women Pilots, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. From the National Portrait Gallery's exhibit "One Life: Amelia Earhart.")
airspacemag.com

There are 599,086 pilots in the United States (as of December 2013), but only 6.61 percent—or 39,621—are women. But the numbers are somewhat misleading. Of that number, just 25,216 have an “other-than-student” pilot certificate, just 4.21 percent of the total of all U.S. pilots.            

In late 2011, Mireille Goyer, founder of Women of Aviation Worldwide Week, contacted the FAA and obtained certificate statistics from 1960 through 2010. She determined that there was an increase in the number of female pilots during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, when the numbers rose from 4,218 to 26,896. But since 1980, only 555 U.S. women have earned an “other-than-student” license the percentage of pilot’s licenses earned by women has stayed flat. (Text corrected 2/8/15)

Why are so few women becoming pilots? For answers, we looked at some of the studies in Absent Aviators: Gender Issues in Aviation edited by Donna Bridges, Jane Neal-Smith, and Albert Mills (Ashgate, 2014). One study conducted by Deanne Gibbons, a sociologist and member of the Royal Australian Air Force, indicated that young girls view piloting as difficult, dangerous, and “more of a man’s job.” Additionally, “Views about what constitutes a ‘typical pilot’ were extremely strong,” writes Gibbons. “A number of participants expressed a belief that they wouldn’t suit flying because they lacked the typical pilot traits of arrogance, overt confidence and a lifelong obsession with aviation.”

There is evidence, says Gibbons, that girls who become either commercial or military pilots have had an early association with flying, something Gibbons labels “an epiphany moment.” These were triggered by direct exposure to flying: either visiting the cockpit during a commercial flight, watching aircraft take off from an airfield, or taking a joyride during a vacation. Most of the women interviewed experienced their epiphany moment between the ages of 5 and 10. These childhood experiences were then bolstered by hands-on flying experience during the girls’ teenage years. The participants also described having “aviation-obsessed” fathers who encouraged their interest, although the fathers were only rarely pilots themselves. 

Absent Aviators includes the results of a two-year U.S. study by Penny Rafferty Hamilton, a Colorado-based pilot and aviation educator. Hamilton surveyed female flight students in an effort to identify barriers that stop women from earning a pilot’s license. The top reason given was lack of money for flight training, followed by “instructor-student communication incompatibility”; instructors leaving flight instruction to take airline or charter service jobs, requiring the flight student to start over with another instructor; and a lack of female mentors.  Other barriers include lack of experience with, and knowledge of, mechanical systems, and a lack of map-reading experience. 

These obstacles can be overcome, says Hamilton, in a variety of ways. General aviation training scholarships could be expanded for women over 50 who want to start or complete flight programs. (Most current funding targets a younger demographic, she says.) Female flight students could be encouraged to build confidence with more simulator time, and those with weak map-reading skills and little mechanical experience could be directed to online tutorials and hands-on workshops. Flight schools can create a more “female-friendly” atmosphere simply by posting photographs of pilots of both genders. 

The problem of cost will be harder to overcome, and affects men as well as women. In 1960, a new Cessna 172 cost $9,450 (or $75,580 in 2015 dollars). Today, a modern Cessna 172—an entry-level general aviation airplane—sells for between $274,900 and $307,500. 

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