By Kristina Harrington
Weeks ago, Iran Air announced Farzaneh Sharafbafi as their newly appointed CEO. This was a big step for the airline, and for women in aviation as a whole, as it was one of the first times in history that a woman was given such a high position of power in this field. But, for some, this news begged the question: why are women so scarce in aviation as a whole?
— Iran Air (@IranAir_IRI) July 23, 2017
For decades, men have dominated the ever-growing aviation industry. Though sexism in the workplace has decreased and continues to do so, many boards of directors still focus on choosing male executives over equally qualified females. As a whole, only about 6% of the world’s airlines have or had female CEOs, meaning well over 94% of airlines are almost exclusively run by men.
There have been plenty of chances for western countries to step up and increase the incentive for female participation in the global scheme of aviation business. Especially for the United States, a “leader in feminism and equality,” but why haven’t any U.S. airlines appointed any female CEOs or any female executives?
Southwest Airlines is one slight exception. They employed Colleen Barrett, who served as Vice President and Corporate Secretary of the airline until she stepped down in 2008. Having worked for SWA for thirty years, she served two executive jobs and was even awarded the Tony Jannus Award for Distinguished Achievement in Commercial Air Transportation in 2007, a year before she stepped down from her duties the following year. She was one female pioneer of aviation, and proof that women are powerful allies to companies. Why can’t other airlines follow suit?
In 2015, about 18 women were CEOs or Executives for major airlines. Two of these women were employed at Avianca, and three for AirAsia. How many for the United States, though? Zero. Another interesting statistic: the IATA, representing over 250 airlines throughout the world, had exactly zero women on their Board of Governors in 2016. They have also indicated that about 6% of the airlines they represent have women appointed to a senior position of power. This essentially means that the scarcity of women in aviation is not just based on airlines alone, but as an industry.
— IATA (@IATA) June 4, 2017
In another field of aviation, women are also short. In the United States alone, only about 6% of pilots are women and throughout the world, that percentage is much smaller. In Absent Aviators: Gender Issues in Aviation, a study by Deanne Gibbons, a sociologist and Royal Australian Air Force member, indicated that young girls view being a pilot as difficult, dangerous, and “more of a man’s job.” In addition, “a number of participants expressed a belief that they wouldn’t suit flying because they lacked the stereotypical pilot traits of arrogance, overt confidence and a lifelong obsession with aviation,” according to AirSpace Magazine. Many women that become pilots usually have an early association with flight, and are exposed to piloting at a young age unlike many of the participants in the study.
When we think of female aviators and pioneers in piloting, only one woman comes to mind. That woman is Amelia Earhart. In popular culture, she is most known for being the first female pilot to cross the entire Atlantic for which she earned a Distinguished Flying Cross. Later, she disappeared in the Pacific Ocean on her flight to Howland Island from Papua New Guinea. Though she is certainly an icon for many women in aviation, 80 years after her disappearance, she is basically the only female pilot of conversation. But, what about Sheila Scott, the first British pilot to fly solo across the world? What about Emily Howell Warner, the first female captain of a U.S. scheduled flight? These women broke glass ceilings and worked hard, and they aren’t given credit where it’s due.
For many, it is still a common belief that being a pilot is simply not for a female: in fact, I experienced this when taking a discovery flight. The minute I landed my mother said, “Are you sure you want to do such a manly thing?” Society has made such an impact on the view of aviation and piloting to be dominantly male, that women are often penalized or made fun of for their interest in flight itself.
Above all, women are scarce in aviation from society and their role in making the industry, and many industries across the board, a mostly male field. Many organizations, though, are geared toward women in aviation and even celebrate them, like Women in Aviation, International. In addition, WomenVenture occurs each year at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh.
As a woman so heavily influenced by aviation, it is shocking that female involvement in aviation business isn’t higher and more appreciated, especially in the 21st century. Women are certainly increasing in number in the field, but airlines and organizations need to incentivize the inclusion of women in boards, business, and commercial flight.
Featured photo by Air India.