WAI Study Underscores Gender Gap in Aviation Workforce

 - March 6, 2020, 7:36 AM
WAI is highlighting a new study on gender gaps not only in the pilot population but throughout the aviation workforce. While only 7.3 percent of pilots and 1 percent of airline pilots are women, PlaneSense's pilot ranks are more than 10 percent female and includes captain Kris Hull (left) and first officer Kelsey Ten Hoeve. (Photo: PlaneSense)

A new study highlights gender gaps not only in the pilot population but throughout the aviation workforce, with women accounting for less than 10 percent in key roles. Women in Aviation International (WAI) released the study, a first of its kind, conducted with the University of Nebraska at Omaha Aviation Institute with a NASA Nebraska Space Grant.

The study, which drew 1,323 respondents from a variety of occupations, found women account for 3 percent of the CEOs in the world’s top 100 airline groups, 2.4 percent of the FAA-certified maintenance technicians, and 5 percent of airline pilots. Only 1 percent of airline pilots are female captains. On the positive side, though, the number of female pilots has increased slightly over the past decade to 7.3 percent.

An underlying purpose of the survey was to identify what can bring women into the field, Becky Lutte, an associate professor for the University of Nebraska Aviation Institute, said, discussing the findings in WAI’s Aviation for Women magazine. A passion for aviation was the top influencing factor cited, followed by perception as an adventurous profession, perception as a fun profession, desire to prove personal abilities, and desire for challenge career. Negative factors were costs, “good ole boy” perception, and family life impact.

Lutte is detailing the findings this afternoon during a session at Women In Aviation International’s 2020 conference.


Gender gaps in aviation -- why don't we talk about gender gaps in nursing or in pre-school or daycare? Some gender gaps are a natural result of cultural norms and the individual decisions people make for the betterment of themselves and their families. They don't indicate some sort of negative barrier or oppression or a "good ole boy's club". I'm sure there is a "gender gap" in the flight attendant category as well. Must be a "good ol' girls club" holding the men back. I'm sorry -- these kinds of stories are misleading at best. Reporting from a biased viewpoint with a preconceived conclusion and stating "facts" without any real analysis of cause-and-effect is worse than irresponsible.

Absolutely. As soon as I see the word 'under-represented' it always begs the always unanswered question of just what is proper representation decided by what factor(s) and by whom? Yes, if we have foolish obstacles in a field we should removed them but what do we do when, at the end of the day, the numbers still aren't 50/50 male/female, Tall/Short, Southerner/Northerner? It's fine to talk about dumb restrictions but to propose you know the proper ratio ahead of time is unsupported arrogance.

The industry needs to have a better representation of women in the cockpit "As Captains". I will be looking for one in August.

Donald, wouldn't it make more sense to hire the most qualified job applicant? Why push identity politics?

Why is it when the 'Quotas' don't meet the standards of the self proclaimed politically correct and government that men are to blame. Maybe most females don't want to fly airplanes. Take that survey of both sexes. I have been flying over 50 years. My wife, daughter and grand daughter don't care anything about getting a license. I offered. I have numerous cousins that had the chance to learn to fly because of flyers in our family. None took the challenge. Realize too that men are not allowed into the flying game because of expense and many times a lack of higher education. Like in the military and airlines but both complain about a shortage of pilots? Stop blaming males, especially white males, for every thing. We never had Slaves, have nothing against a dedicated female pilot and don't hate Latinos. Blame the ones that will not sacrifice to fly.

I don't know who makes up these stupid rules. If women want to fly airplanes, go for it. If they don't, that's ok to. This is such a stupid silly argument, nobody is stopping anyone from doing anything.

As a father of two women in aviation (one a pilot, one an A&P), I would say that the "good ole boy perception" is for the most part, just that - perception. But for pilots trying to make a career out of part 121 flying and working for a regional, family life impact is huge. There are other ways to work as a pilot that don't have as great of an impact, but that is a significant issue that affects recruitment and retention.

What the hell? If they don't want to be pilots then don't ram it down there throats. What the hell is this?

Stop trying to control other people's lives. There are as many women in aviation as are interested and willing to put in the work. Let freedom ring!

Exactly. I think even women would find this argument on the stupid side. It's like we are to believe there is some great evil force in the universe keeping anyone from doing anything.

I am a male pilot, working for a company that actively recruits and hires female pilots. I am the married father of four daughters and several of my good female friends along my 57 years of life have been pilots, including my wife who earned her private license at age 18 (though she only flies with me now). I am more than willing to bet that there are significant, real barriers to women becoming professional pilots, just as there are for men. But I find it misleading, and somewhat disingenuous to assume that because women make up X% of one profession, or the U.S. population, the distribution in the cockpit should somehow be equal. Much of the reason women may not aspire to certain positions, including becoming a professional pilot, is self-selection. In the year 2020 to say that "good ole boy" is a valid excuse renders it just that, an excuse. My daughters were more than willing to do anything any boy their age could do, or at least try. They took after their mother and she has the scars to prove it.

So what?

I find this odd that helicopter companies are not actively looking for women. Mainly because of the average size of women. The average healthy woman that can pass an FAA physical is at least 50 to 70 lbs. less than the average man.
This means less fuel burn or more cargo / fuel.
That would be almost an hours worth of fuel in most small helicopters.

Since I started my flying career in 1990, there has been a strong push to hire female and minority pilots. There was plenty of encouragement in the industry to bring in more female and minority pilots, lots of outreach, many scholarship programs. I know of women with a bare minimum of flight hours landing interviews with the airlines while white males with twice the experience were left out. All doors were open for women. If any roadblocks were out there, they were against the white male population. After 30 years of trying to get females into aviation, to achieve the "proper" diversity ratio, maybe we should just let individuals make their own decisions and let the chips fall where they may.

Thank you all for reading. The point of the survey was to find underlying reasons why the numbers aren’t moving and what could be done to help narrow that gap.

Work-life balance was most definitely a key response in career decisions. This has been cited frequently for why women leave the workforce as well. 

As far as perceptions of the “good ole boy” network, the author of the study, Becky Lutte, said she was surprised that rose to the top. She had at one point questioned whether to query about it in the original survey but was glad she did given the frequency of response. This is not true for everyone: during a discussion about it at WAI 2020, one mechanic said she had never encountered it. However, others chimed in to the contrary.

As far as the disparity in numbers, one colleague made the point that decades of turning away women may have set the stage to where it is now, even if women are most welcomed.

And as for why not discuss other professions, well that answer is simple. The study is focused on aviation because we are in the aviation field. And, diversity becomes particularly important as the industry is concerned about workforce shortages. But disparities go both ways no doubt, depending on the profession.

Hello Kerry,

"what might help narrow the gap" What is the proper ratio of all identities that we should have? If you suggest narrowing the gap is necessary surely you must have a target in mind?

I am a female pilot and I have experienced "the good old boy" mentality from many around the airport when I first started. Many schools I visited did not make me feel welcomed at all. When I was first trying to buy a plane a broker told me straight out he would not help a female buy her first plane. I bought an Archor 2 and became a pilot anyway. I love to fly.

Citing a “good ole boy” perception seems a bit misleading. In almost 50 years, we have only progressed to a 7% presence of women on the flight deck. The knee jerk reaction from some male pilots in these comments demonstrates that the “good ole boy” is tangible. Calling it a perception puts a touchy-feely element to a concrete problem. Men have failed to change the club. Numbers don’t lie. The #Me Too movement will need to expand into employment if we are to speed the transition to equal opportunity. The male-dominated industry has demonstrated its inability to do so.

The research has shown for decades that male and female brains tend to have differences that account for varying abilities and interests. These differences are built in before birth and not open to significant change. There IS considerable overlap in these traits but I think it accounts for much of the reason women are not in aviation - ie they are not as interested in such things (in general). These facts fly in the face of the decade-long myth, pushed strongly by misinformed academia ,that and women are mostly the same. They are not. As a culture we are trying to ignore this reality and the push for equal representation represents this. Some women desire to fly and the door should be open for them. As a young guy/pilot I always wondered why so few women flew but the brain research told me why. I am sure - of course-some will respond to this comment by calling me sexist etc but that is not true. I am glad that women are encouraged to fly these days but it is naive to expect the numbers to ever approach 50/50. BTW my favorite pilots are Patty Wagstaff whom I have met and Bob Hoover whom I would like to meet.

Aviation journalism has gone down the road of promoting one sex over the other. Any woman that wants to fly can do so without any obstruction from the male world.

FAA statistics (publicly available on their website) show that the overall number of fully-rated female pilots in the U.S. has dropped from 28,854 in 2008 to 24,197 in 2018. There is also a drop in the number of professional female pilots. For current percentage, 24,197 women out of 478,801 pilots yields 5.05% - not 7.3%. The number of student pilot certificates issued annually (table 17) has also dropped dramatically (63,468 in 2008 vs. 45,354, all genders included). Why publish fake data in the form of a "study"?

Good question Chuck C.: Why is no one concerned about how underrepresented men are in the field of nursing? (BTW more so than women 121 pilots) Why is that cultural norm understood/accepted while the number of women airline pilots is not? It results from a "inclusive" / "diversity" mindset without a brain attached to it. Of course inappropriate obstacles, barriers or ceilings (gender or otherwise) should absolutely be confronted and overcome. Moreover, I honestly believe many women's intellect and intuition make them MORE capable in the pilot role than a typical male. But to pursue equal "representation" in every aspect of life is lazy and mindless. Are we actually so simple minded as to think proper "representation" equals the demographics of the population in question? Evidently so. Also, most of us are fortunate in that we were NOT raised seeing our mothers only 2-3 days a week. Yes, of course it can be done...although extremely difficult and with great sacrifice. But is that really something we want to promote? Are we conscious of the fact that to persuade a young lady to pursue an airline pilot career inflicts on them a likely future gut-wrenching choice between a hugely invested career and their uniquely female calling...to mother a child(ren)? Yes, yes, fathers are often away from home for work. But like it or not, parental roles are not "equal". That is one of countless inconvenient realities that make out of control politically-correct thinking irrational. Please...please, think before jumping on such bandwagons.
Don't get me started on income "inequality"...