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The Importance of Women Pilots: Past, Present, and Future

Woman Airline Pilot

The aviation sector will continue to grow at a fast pace world wide. As the sector grows so does the number of qualified men and women required to successfully manage the air transport system. It is important to attract and retain sufficient numbers of skilled male and female professionals across all levels to contribute to the operation and management of the expanding global transport system and ensure the ability to fill pilot jobs.

International air transport spurs economic expansion by supporting trade, attracting businesses and tourism, and encouraging investments. Economic activity that would otherwise not exist can be attracted by improved air transport connectivity.

To keep pace with the rapid growth , there is a need to improve efficiency and effectiveness at all levels of aviation operations. One of the ways the desired improvements can be achieved is by making the aviation industry more gender balanced.

According data presented by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) at the 2018 Global Aviation Gender Summit , only 5.18 percent of pilots are female. “If demand for flights continues to grow rapidly, men alone cannot provide sufficient pilots,” said Angela Gittens, director-general of the Airports Council International. “The fact is that if you ignore half of the world’s population, we’ll never get there”

The achievement of Gender equality has enormous socioeconomic ramifications. Empowering women fuels thriving economies and spurs increasing productivity and growth.

The 2018 McKinsey ‘Deliver Through Diversity’ report found that increased diversity leads to stronger financial performance. “If you don’t have diverse talent within your organization, or if women aren’t playing a key role in driving innovation, you will not keep up with the external pressures and demands of an increasingly diverse and dynamic customer base,” says Nate Hurst, Chief Sustainability and Social Impact Officer at HP.

Women Have Played a Significant Role in Aviation History

Women have made a significant mark on the progress and history of aviation. These are just a few of the women who have made a lasting contribution:

Harriet Quimby

Harriet Quimby
Harriet Quimby

The first woman to earn a pilot license in the United States, Harriet Quimby was also a journalist and screenwriter and was influential to other women in the early days of aviation.

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart is one of the most well known pilots of all time. She was the 16th woman to earn a pilot license and became the first woman to fly across both North America and solo across the Atlantic.

Helen Richey

Won a contest against eight male pilots to become a pilot for Central Airlines, making her the first US woman to pilot an airmail transport aircraft on a regular schedule.

Jacqueline Cochran

Jacqueline Cochran
Jacqueline Cochran

Proposed a program to allow women pilots to staff non-combat duties. Became the director of the WASPs. First woman to break the sound barrier and went on to set more speed, altitude, and distance records than any other pilot (male or female), holding them until 1980.

Gloria Heath

Founding member of the International Flight Safety Foundation. Recognized internationally for her initiatives resulting in use of cockpit recorders for accident investigation, safety improvements, and a global satellite-aided response system.

Olive Ann Beech

Cofounded Beech Aircraft Company with her husband Walter Beech. She took over as President and CEO of the company when Walter died and transformed Beech Aircraft into a multimillion-dollar, international corporation.

Audrey Poberezny

Played an active role in the formation, administration and operation of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) since its founding in 1953.

Sheila Scott

British aviator who gained her pilot’s license in 1960 and became a demonstrator for Cessna and Piper aircraft. Broke over 100 aviation records between 1965 and 1972 including being the first British person to fly over the North Pole in a small aircraft and the first British pilot to fly solo across the world.

Sally Ride

Sally Ride
Sally Ride

First American woman to travel into space while serving as crew on the space shuttle Challenger in June 1983. Was added to the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2003 for operating the robotic arm and assisting in deploying two satellites into space. Remains the youngest American astronaut to travel into space.

Emily Howell Warner

First permanent woman pilot for a scheduled US passenger airline when she started flying for Frontier Airlines in 1973. First woman member of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA).

Jeana Yeager

Partnered with Dick Rutan to create Voyager Aircraft. Was one of the pilots crewing the Voyager, which flew the maximum circumference of the globe in just over nine days.

Amy Carmien

Founder of the publication Women in Aviation. Founding board member of Women in Aviation International (WAI) and a trustee of the International Women’s Air and Space Museum (IWASM).

Patty Wagstaff

Earned her pilot licence in 1980 and trained with the Russian aerobatic team – becoming an expert at low level aerobatic displays. First woman to win the US National Aerobatic Championship and became a six time member of the US aerobatic team.

Jane Garvey

First woman Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) . She was the first administrator to be confirmed by the Senate for a five-year term.

Women Are a Small Percentage of Pilots and Only Growing Slowly

Data presented by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) at the 2018 Global Aviation Gender Summit, showed only 5.18 percent of pilots are female. The total number of women pilots across all categories of aviation in the United States has grown by 19 percent though women pilots’ share only increased by 1 percent over the last decade.

The number of women holding student pilot certificates has doubled over over the past decade, indicating a growing interest among women in flying – but they were still only 12.9% of all FAA student pilots in 2017.

Chart of Registered Airmen by Gender

Why Aren’t There More Women Pilots?

Cultural Stereotypes and Early Childhood Development

Gender is defined by the relations between women and men and the norms and values regarding ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ roles and behaviors – with the roles of men and women in society differing in time and place.

It is essential to look at the enablers and barriers to a STEM education, choosing a career and working in the aviation sector. Choices can be influenced by cultural stereotypes early on in life and furthered by well-meaning parents and teachers, including peer pressure. Gender roles in movies and TV shows as well as marketing and advertising campaigns have been shown to have consequences on kids’ self-esteem, relationships, and career choices.

Education Systems and Schools Play a Fundamental Role in the Career Choices of Students

STEM Education

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reports that girls appear to lose interest in STEM subjects with age, particularly between early and late adolescence – which changes participation in the fields of study that would lead to aviation-related careers.

There are three primary factors that cause this:

  • Aspirations that are molded by society and parental expectations
  • Information failures that affect the decision to enter and stay in a STEM field
  • Institutional factors that constrain women’s ability to enter a STEM job

Gender Equality in the Aviation-Related Workplace

In a passenger survey conducted in 2012, 51% of respondents reported that they were less likely to trust a woman pilot than a man and 32% believed men pilots would be ῾more skilled’ than women . Research has shown no significant difference in the accident rates of men and women pilots.

The dominant view of airline pilots as assertive masculine figures may dissuade women from pursuing a career on the flight deck and women pilots are often subject to sexist remarks and behavior from colleagues and passengers.

Women often had to work hard to prove themselves as capable as men in the field. Clare Booth Luce, a prominent public conservative figure in the United States, wrote “Because I am a woman, I must make unusual efforts to succeed. If I fail, no one will say, ‘She doesn’t have what it takes.’ They will say, ‘Women don’t have what it takes.’

Is There Anything Being Done to Encourage More Women Pilots?

“Gender equality is achieved when women and men, girls and boys, enjoy the same rights and opportunities across all sectors of society, including economic participation and decision-making, and when the different behaviors, aspirations and needs of women and men are equally valued and favored. “ – ICAO Aviation Gender Summit

ICAO has announced that in commitment to enhancing gender equality by 2030 “at all professional and higher levels of employment in the global aviation sector” a new initiative on “Air Transport Gender Equality” will be developed. This is the A39-30 ICAO Gender Equality Program.

ICAO’s “Air Transport Gender Equality Initiative” is intended to provide statistics and forecasting to be used as a practical tool by member countries in identifying gaps in personnel planning and training and gender inequality. Regularly updated studies and publications will service as guidance for decision makers within participating countries to invest in opportunities for gender equal employment and training in the global aviation industry.

ICAO’s recent initiatives are only part of the ongoing efforts to change the gender makeup within aviation. Many people and organizations have been working towards this goal through the years. Below is a small list of these organizations.

Organizations Supporting Women in Aviation

Women in Aviation International

Nonprofit organization dedicated to the encouragement and advancement of women in all aviation career fields and interests. Provides resources to assist women in aviation and to encourage young women to consider aviation as a career. WAI offers educational outreach programs to educators, aviation industry members, and young people nationally and internationally. Learn More

International Aviation Womens Association

International organization for women who hold positions of impact in the aviation and aerospace industry. International Aviation Women’s Association (IAWA) seeks to bring together women of achievement and promotes their advancement throughout the world. Learn More

International Society of Women Airline Pilots

Woman Airline Pilot

Non-profit corporation with the goal of increasing the percentage of women airline pilots. International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISA) states that it is the world’s largest single donor of advanced flight scholarships for women. Learn More


Non-profit, charitable membership corporation with the goal of promoting the advancement of aviation through education, scholarships and mutual support. Learn More

Women in Corporate Aviation

A non-profit organization that is a group of aviation professionals, including flight department personnel, FBO managers, writers, students, training center professional and many others who work together to promote opportunities for women in aviation. Learn More

Education Support

Below is a list of grants and scholarships available to women seeking careers in aviation. This is an example and should not be considered a complete list:

  1. Women in Aviation International 2019 Scholarships
  2. Advancing Women In Transportation
  3. The Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarship
  4. Female Aviators Sticking Together (F.A.S.T) Scholarship
  5. I Heart Flying
  6. American Association of Airport Executives Women in Aviation Scholarship
  7. Whirly Girls
  8. Amelia Earhart Fellowship
  9. International Society of Women Airline Pilots

Global Aviation Gender Summit

The first Global Aviation Gender Summit took place this last August in Cape Town, South Africa. The summit was co-organized by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) and ICAO in close collaboration with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Global Aviation Gender Summit

The goal of the summit was to “provide a unique opportunity to advocate and advance gender equality and empowerment of women in the global aviation sector” and the “identification of bottlenecks and opportunities to enhance gender balance from a life cycle perspective – as young girls and boys grow up to become adolescent females and males onwards to adult women and men. This approach will illustrate the importance to advocate gender equality in aviation throughout the different stages of life.“

Girls in Aviation Day

Girls in Aviation Day is an annual global event organized by Women In Aviation International (WIA) and will take place in 2018 on October 13th. Girls in Aviation Day is designed to introduce and educate girls 8 to 17 years of age on the career choices and lifestyle possibilities offered by the aviation/aerospace industry. The event is hosted through WIA’s global chapter network and participating corporate members, sponsors and partners and features a variety of offerings to girls and young women.

Greg started his professional pilot journey in 2002 after graduating from Embry Riddle. Since that time he has accumulated over 8,000 hours working as a pilot. Greg’s professional experience includes flight instructing, animal tracking, backcountry flying, forest firefighting, passenger charter, part 135 cargo, flying for a regional airline, a national low cost airline, a legacy airline, and also working as a manager in charge of Part 135 and Part 121 training programs.

Greg Thomson