A flying feminist

I’m often asked what it’s like being a woman in a male-dominated field, whether I get treated the same as my male counterparts, and what my reality is as a woman working in aviation.
It’s no secret that challenges are magnified for women attempting to successfully penetrate and persevere in historically male-dominated work environments. And while feminist debates about women in male-dominated fields may get old for some, a few of us still believe that it’s an issue worthy of attention.

You could argue that aviation is completely open to women. As open as it is to men, in fact. But if you will, appease me for just a moment. Imagine this; you’re an 18 year-old girl who has dreams of becoming a pilot, and even though you have never seen a female pilot, you want to learn how to fly. You do all the research. You find Flight Schools and you muster up the courage to visit the Flight School closest to you. You walk into the reception area and…


After a few people walk past you, one employee finally notices you. They assume you’re looking for someone. They assume you’re someone’s girlfriend. What they don’t assume, is that you want to become a pilot. Simply because you don’t fit the profile. Not the most welcoming environment, is it?

The most recent annual report by the South African Civil Aviation Authority illustrated a sobering picture. There are 4175 Fixed Wing Airline Transport Licence holders in South Africa – this is the highest pilot licence you can obtain. Of the 4175 ATPL holders, only 244 are held by women. These numbers point to urgent need for meaningful transformation interventions.

It is true, that today, more than ever, young girls have access to opportunities that our mothers and grandmothers could only dream of having.

A recent study showed that at the start of primary school, about as many girls as boys have positive attitudes towards science, but by grade two, when learners are asked to draw a scientist, most portray a white man in a lab coat. The persistence of these stereotypes starts to turn girls off, and by grade eight, boys are twice as likely as girls to be interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) careers.

The underrepresentation of women and girls in STEM has dramatic implications on women’s economic security. Encouraging girls to pursue STEM classes and activities is the first step to creating a pipeline for a diverse and competitive workforce.

Sadly, in aviation, there are still countless examples of gender discrimination. It’ll be a rare flight you will take where the person flying the airplane is a woman. What’s sadder is that, even today, there are some airline passengers who are uncomfortable with the role of a female pilot in the cockpit. So yes, it’s a problem. In aviation, sexism exists. And this is why it’s an issue worthy of attention.

As female aviator, Amelia Earhart once said; ‘Aviation, this young modern giant, exemplifies the possible relationship of women and the creations of science. Although women have not taken full advantage of its use and benefits, air travel is as available to them as to men.’

To the young girls reading this; never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your dreams.

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