To Infinity and Beyond! 

Closing the gap for Women in Aviation
by Valerie Baxter

When I left high school with my educational qualifications, dreaming of travelling the world, I made the short list for employment at BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corp now extinct), Britain’s long haul airline. I had the height, looks (blonde, blue eyes, nice long legs) education and disposition to become an Air Hostess, or today to be politically correct, Flight Attendant. I sailed through all the selection processes, I could see myself in the smart uniform stepping off jumbo jets in exotic countries. Then came the devastating blow to my frequent flying future. At the final interview I was told I’d failed my medical examination. Apparently a history of days off school for tonsillitis, laryngitis due to vocal cord exertion as a choir soloist contributed to the decisive NO as I would be required to visit many different climate zones and could become a sick leave risk, an economic liability to the airline. I begged and I argued that I was as strong as an ox but to no avail. So, I licked my wounds and accepted second best to become a travel agent in Central London a fortnight later! So much for my dream of infinity and beyond

The gender quota for flight attendants is largely in women’s favour, males have only slightly increased their presence between 1980 19.3% male and 2007 26.4% male. The pay gap used to be in women’s favour with greater levels of seniority, alas now males have higher wages despite the 26% wage drop between 1980 and 2007. The population of flight attendants will become increasingly older in coming years. Because health care needs escalate with age, flight attendants will likely have a significant impact on health care costs to the airline industry (From a purely personal perspective, revenge is a dish best served cold).

Joking apart, highly significant is the entrance to the airline industry thanks to the acceptance of diversity. A touching video about Georgia, with Down syndrome tells in a nutshell how she followed her dream to become part of an airline cabin crew.

16th December 2017: Ethiopian Airlines operates the first all female flight crew in Africa to encourage African women to consider pursuing careers in aviation, an industry that is currently dominated by men.

Another gender gap closes as we watch Captain Nevin Darwish from Egypt and First Officer Alia Al Muhairi from the UAE fly the iconic Emirates Airbus A380 from Dubai to Vienna for International Women’s Day. Captain Darwish is the first woman of Arab origin to have captained the Airbus A380. First Officer Al Muhairi, a UAE national, is currently the youngest Emirati female pilot operating the Emirates A380 aircraft.  

The real barriers belong to military aviation but not for much longer since Italian law changed in 2000 allowing women access to military forces (still only 3% in the Italian Air Force). PWA Conference speaker and trailblazer Major Ida Casetti was the first female to be accepted in the Italian Air Force, where she flew as search and rescue pilot on HH-3F helicopters. Other examples follow: Against the wishes of her military father Major Federica Maddalena, and Major Ilaria Ragona, who initially  envisaged herself in a different career both joined the Italian Air Force Eurofighter pilots to be a top gun.

According to the Institute for Women of Aviation Worldwide female pilots make up about 7% of all certified pilots, yet professional pilot ranks are even less diverse with just over 4% of women holding airline transport pilot certificates. 6.3% of the commercial pilots in the U.S. are women, sadly only 1.3% in China, where female pilots make the strongest call for change; in contrast India has the highest proportion of female pilots – 12%. On the bright side, as society becomes more concerned about sustainability and environmental issues, because of female non belligerent mindsets, unafraid of front-line conditions, women are best placed to lead rescue, medical and humanitarian aid in the aviation industry. Gender discrimination, hostile attitudes to diversity and unconscious bias mellow when Blackhawk helicopters land in U.S. elementary schools to the delight of boys and girls in equal measure. Never too young to start dreaming…

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