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Female pilots discuss flying high in a predominantly male world

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Trisha Hughes talks to two DB-based female pilots to understand what it’s like to fly high in a predominantly male world.

As a woman who’s been married to a pilot for almost 20 years, I know that life can be like a circus act at times. You juggle rosters, family events and emergencies and it often feels like all the planets have to be in alignment for you to accomplish even a simple happy-hour get-together. Over the years, I’ve pouted and complained about my plight in life, and I have always been somewhat in awe of the few women in my circle, who have chosen to be pilots and tackle the gender-related hurdles, while successfully blending their career and family lives.

Female pilots operate in their own small clique in professional aviation. They are women who have chosen a difficult and challenging career and have succeeded in a predominantly male world. And there’s no doubt about it, being a pilot, male or female, requires extraordinary skills. These include intense concentration, good hand-eye coordination and the ability to remain cool and calm when dealing with challenging operational and environmental conditions. But these skills are not gender-related. So why is it that we still do a double take when we see a female pilot?

Overcoming gender stereotype

DB resident Sara Boulton began her aviation career as a flight attendant, firstly with Alitalia and then British Airways. Before relocating to Cathay Dragon nine months ago, Sara had been flying as a commercial pilot in Australia for 10 years and as such, has valuable insight into life as a female pilot. “This may seem like a man’s world with an average of about 5% of pilots being female,” she says, “but personally, I just think of it as an aviator’s world. It just happens that the majority of aviators have been men.”

Of course, aviation officially came into its own with fighter pilots during World War I and World War II. Back then, it was an unstated fact that men accepted the dangers of fighting wars, while most women supported the cause through war work, nursing and child raising. After these wars, commercial aviation emerged and it’s a rather obvious step to understand that the vast majority of commercial pilots came from the military, and as such were men.

“In my younger days as a flight attendant,” Sara says, “female pilots were rare, and despite my constant thoughts about being in the flight deck – not just to flirt with the cute, young first officers, but to actually fly this awesome beast of a machine, (a B767 at the time) – it took flying with a stunning, blonde, female first officer, an ex-‘trolley dolly’ like me, to help me kick myself into gear and put those thoughts into action. From this meeting, I never looked back.”

That said, Sara recalls having to battle stereotype when she first started training. “I always remember one of my flying instructors, a very traditional older gentleman, advising me that being a pilot was a challenging career and that a lady’s place was at home as a wife and homemaker,” she says with a smile. “If I was a different person, I might have taken offence, however, I actually saw it as a beautiful and genuine comment from a man who had traditional beliefs. His comments inspired me to work the hardest I possibly could to succeed in my chosen career, as I felt as passionately about flying, as he did about his traditions. I always have a giggle when I think about his well-intentioned ‘advice.’”

Over the past 10 years, a slow societal change seems to have taken place resulting in female pilots becoming more ‘acceptable’. “Nowadays, the only time this ‘man’s world’ issue becomes apparent to me is when passengers come up to me and say they have never seen a female pilot before, or they think it is so wonderful that I can be a pilot,” Sara says. “These are the times that I realise I am in a perceived man’s world.”

DB resident Tracey Wilcock, a Cathay Pacific pilot and a single parent of two, has similar thoughts on the subject. Discussing what it’s like to work primarily with men on a day-to-day basis, and how male pilots tend to view their female counterparts, she says: “You need to keep in mind that while we are a small minority in the overall industry, when we are flying the airplane, there is only the two of you, so it very much comes down to personalities regardless of your gender. In this regard, I find a sense of humour goes a long way.”

Highs and lows

Becoming a pilot is not an overnight decision. It takes years of study, dedication and self-sacrifice, and some female pilots have to handle the added responsibilities, commitments and challenges of managing a busy family environment as well.

As a single parent, Tracey well knows the difficulty of getting the life balance right. “I’m not sure it’s coping so much as just living my life,” she says. “I have some wonderful friends, supporting me in Hong Kong, and I have an amazing domestic helper who helps me be able to go to work, keeping in mind I have to go away for days and nights at a time.”

But there can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that there are pressures involved. Sometimes pilots are required to make quick decisions based on constantly changing circumstances and act on them immediately. They are, after all, flying an aircraft worth millions of dollars with hundreds of people’s lives in their hands. So what of the ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ scenario, which labels women as more emotional, nurturing creatures prone to worry and fret, while men are more inclined to compartmentalise and simply get on with the task? How do these female pilots keep their cool?

When it comes to being in the cockpit, both women agree that a pilot’s job is to fly an aircraft as safely and efficiently as is humanly possible. Pilots are dedicated to the profession and although it does take a certain personality and level of professionalism to deal with the stressors of the role, men and women alike are trained to deal with these stressors and achieve a high safety standard.

“With regards to the overall industry, and the aspects of living an aviation life as a female, I have found I either thrive or just survive,” Tracey says. “I have found myself in both camps over the course of my career and life, and I think a lot of it depends on your personal circumstances and how supported you are outside of the career. Working in this environment can be both isolating and very demanding.” 

“In my opinion, to become a pilot, you need to have a passion for it,” Sara adds. “It can be a very difficult career path, particularly when you are starting out. If you love it, the expense, sacrifice and hard work are all just little hurdles that can be leapt over, even if there are a few stumbles along the way. When you finally get into that role of flying a jet aircraft, cruising above clouds in a world that seems to be standing still, and then descending with a rush of speed to break out into a clear sky, it’s impossible to describe to anyone who does not have the good fortune to experience it.

“All I can say for sure is that I adore flying,” Sara concludes. “I think that any girl can excel in a career as a pilot, they just need to have the desire to reach for the skies, so to speak.” 

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