Hundreds of thousands of women have made a career for themselves in commercial aviation. According to Women in Aviation (WIA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging women to pursue a career in aviation, nearly a quarter of a million women currently work in every aspect of the industry, from pilots to mechanics.
But the vast majority of female employees with commercial airlines can still be found in the passenger compartments, struggling to hold passengers’ attention during the flight safety demonstrations or wrestling heavy service carts down narrow aisles.
Only a small, albeit growing, percentage of women are can be found in an aircraft’s cockpit.
At its 28th annual convention this weekend in Orlando, Fla., WIA will attempt to encourage more women to take to the skies.
WIA claims nearly 14,000 women and men in all segments of the aviation industry, including general, corporate, commercial and military. As many as 5,000 attendees, including 91 international guests representing 16 countries, are expected to gather this weekend to explore how best to encourage women to seek an aviation career, as well as help those already in the industry to advance.
According to Federal Aviation Administration data made available by WIA, as of Dec. 31, 2015, the total number of commercial pilots in the United States was 101,164. But only 6,5887, or 6.6 percent, are women.
Although precise figures are hard to come by, the same percentage is believed to hold true internationally.
By comparison, 159,703, or 80 percent, of the 200,319 flight attendants in 2013 were female.
The number and percentage of female commercial pilots had actually been steadily increasing between 2000 and 2010. Since then, while the overall numbers have increased, the percentage has remained relatively steady.
Dr. Peggy Chabrian, the president and founder of WIA, said she’s neither surprised nor disappointed that the total number of female commercial airline pilots remains relatively small.
“We are playing a larger role in the overall aviation industry,” she said. “The number of women at colleges and universities with aviation programs is about 15 to 20 percent” compared to around 5 percent when she organized her first conference in Prescott, Ariz., in 1990.
“And the number of women who have gone on to get a commercial pilot’s certificate or an airline transport pilot’s certificate has been increasing tremendously over the last 25 years. When WIA started, the number of women airline pilots was only around 2.5 percent,” she noted.
While the total is still small, the number of female commercial pilots has increased from around 1,000 to between 5,000 and 6,000 today.
“The numbers are increasing, but the percentages will take some time,” Chabrian said.
Chabrian said she believes that sexism is “a very, very small” problem in the industry today and noted that many companies involved in every aspect of the aviation business, from airlines to aircraft manufacturers, are sending human resources representatives to this weekend’s conference to actively recruit women.
The bigger challenge to attracting more women to a wide variety of jobs in aviation is making them aware such careers exist, she said.
“If you’re taking about non-traditional types of careers, if you don’t reach young people at the elementary school level, certainly by the middle school level, they may not be prepared to make that shift by the time they get to high school, certainly by college,” she said.
That’s why, Chabrian explained, her organization’s primary goals are “to introduce young people, especially young ladies, to careers in the aviation industry, to provide resources to women already in aviation to help them move up in their career and to educate the general public about women’s contributions to aviation history.”
To fulfill those goals, Chabrian notes that WIA this year will award more than $650,000 in scholarships to those seeking to pursue an aviation career. Since 1995, WIA has handed our more the $10 million in scholarships.
Chabrian said she’s optimistic women will play an ever increasingly role in aviation. “We are seeing women get in to higher levels of management,” she said.