Changing flight patterns: It’s long past time for the male dominated aviation industry to change

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

On April 17, Tammie Jo Shults successfully landed a plane with a blown engine and a hole in the cabin. She was universally praised for her skill and calm in safely landing a commercial airplane under some of the most difficult conditions possible. But this same heroic pilot was sidelined early in her career in the Navy. Until 1993, women were not allowed to fly in combat missions, though Shults herself was so skilled that she was asked to train male pilots for those same military operations. Shults fought to overturn the combat exclusion rule, but there are still few women pilots in the air.

It’s 2018, but still only about five per cent of pilots are women. Clearly, the industry has a sexism problem. The aviation industry remains a male dominated environment, and women pilots struggle against social isolation and misogyny. Not only are women outnumbered, the industry also has a pattern of failing to adequately respond to complaints of sexism, sexual harassment, and assault.

The thousands of stories shared by women in the #MeToo movement should cause commercial airlines to reconsider the culture that they are facilitating. Safe and respectful workspaces where women are taken seriously need to be a priority. Despite the massive growth of the commercial airline industry, little has changed in in terms of sexism. It is clear that airlines need to take a more active role in recruiting and training women as pilots, as well as in addressing misogyny. Considering that there are currently lawsuits against two major airlines regarding sexual harassment, they may be forced to change their culture, whether they like it or not.

The BC Supreme Court is considering a class action lawsuit filed against WestJet, accusing the company of fostering a culture that permits harassment of its female employees. WestJet argued that the the suit should be thrown out, but the Supreme Court found the complaint had merit, as it centred on a breach of contract to protect its employees from harassment in the workplace.

After Mandalena Lewis, a former WestJet flight attendant, accused a pilot of dragging her onto his hotel room bed and groping her during a layover in Hawaii in January 2010, the company asked her to stay quiet about the incident, then barred the male pilot from flying to Hawaii, in order to protect him from being arrested by Maui police, who had opened an investigation. In 2016, Lewis filed a civil lawsuit against the company for violating its anti-harassment policies in its response to her complaint. At this point, WestJet stopped scheduling her on any flights that could have potentially been worked by the male pilot, significantly reducing her hours. Then, after she made repeated requests to view her employment file, the company fired her for insubordination.

A culture of misogyny impacts women pilots throughout their careers, but overt and subtle sexism also deters potential female pilots from ever stepping foot into a cockpit. Women who want to pilot planes continue to be discouraged by a lack of visible role models, social messaging that says flying a plane is a man’s job, and socialization that fails to teach girls and women to be comfortable with machines or study advanced physics and engineering. When Shults first attended a career information session on aviation in 1979, the representative asked if she was lost and told her there were no women pilots. As a result of her experience, Shults fought, throughout her career, for opportunities for women to learn more about aviation, saying in a 1993 profile, “Gender doesn’t matter, there’s no advantage or disadvantage… which proves my point — if there’s a good mix of genders, it ceases to be an issue.” But this imbalance remains ever present, in turn maintaining the status quo.

Erika Armstrong, a pilot and aviation professor, named her most recent book A Chick in the Cockpit, after an encounter she had early in her career as a flight engineer. As she boarded, the captain said, “Another empty kitchen… and another chick in my cockpit.” Armstrong responded, “Oh great, another giant cock in the cockpit.” Armstrong’s response was clever, but female pilots just starting out in the industry shouldn’t have to come up with snappy responses to sexist comments or fend off sexual harassment and assault, as too many of Armstrong’s associates have.

Erika Armstrong and her instructor, Kip Koppi (Image: Erika Armstrong)

Flight attendants have been subjected to sexual harassment on the job for years, with stories ranging from unwelcome comments and passes, to groping, and female pilots are not exempt. Philosophy professor Kate Manne argues that “misogyny describes environments where women face hostility and hatred because they’re women in a man’s world,” and indeed, aviation is a man’s world.

Jane Clegg, a career pilot, filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission in March, saying Air Canada ignored her complaints of sexist treatment on the job and that they didn’t understand that “there’s a difference between not liking somebody and somebody who is intentionally diminishing your professional standing — simply because of your gender.” Clegg told the CBC, “I don’t think they truly appreciate the impact that misogyny has on their female pilots.” Clegg felt she was left with no option but to quit, though she will argue for her reinstatement and for the airline to improve its policies on sexist harassment before a public tribunal over the next few weeks. She hopes her experiences will not be in vain, telling the CBC, “I very much want my legacy to be that my career paved the way for younger generations of women to be able to enjoy a better work experience than than I do.”

Armstrong and others argue that the nature of the pilot’s lifestyle — things like inflexible scheduling, lack of maternity leave, and jet lag — may be a deterrent to women, but female airline attendants are quite common, (only about 26 per cent of flight attendants are men), so there must be more at play. Plus, not all flights are long-haul and international. It just doesn’t fly that women’s desire to be closer to their homes and families is what puts them off of pursuing careers as pilots.

Misogyny is common in many workplaces, but for airline pilots, it comes from all sides — from coworkers in the cockpit as well as from passengers in the cabin. Female pilots are subjected to sexist comments, expressions of disbelief that they are actually the pilot, and assumptions that they are less competent.

In 2016, an American Airlines flight departing from Miami was delayed for an hour because seven people deplaned when they heard that both the pilot and co-pilot were female. Earlier this year, Angela Epstein, host of a UK morning show, argued that she did not feel safe in a plane with a female pilot, because they might be “pre-menstrual,” distracted by their emotions, or tired from waking up in the night with a baby. During a debate between the broadcaster and Marnie Munns, a pilot of 18 years who works for EasyJet, Epstein said, “If it was somebody who has absolute power and absolute control then I’d like it to be a man.”

As old-fashioned as her views sound, Epstein is far from alone. Malid Rydqvist, a Swedish pilot, told Elle that passengers still tell female pilots they feel safer with a man behind the controls, but that when you ask why, “they don’t have an answer.”

The frustrating conundrum is that in order to change attitudes, we need more female pilots, but in order to get more female pilots, we need to change attitudes. Maria Fagerström, a Swedish pilot, told Elle, “People will write me: ‘I didn’t even know as a female you could be a pilot. I thought that was a man’s job.”

In March 2018, two female pilots for Missinippi Airways made history when they became Manitoba’s first female Indigenous medevac team. For one of those pilots, Raven Beardy, who grew up in a remote fly-in community in Manitoba, “aviation was the link to the outside world.” She first flew in a plane when she was seven-years-old and noticed that “the pilots were not only male, but also white.” Beardy’s co-pilot, Robyn Shlachetka told Global News that when she noticed that there were few Indigenous pilots or female pilots, her father told her, “If you can’t find a role model, just become one.” While Shlachetka says she’s proud to show young Indigenous women that “they can do anything they want,” she admits it’s a lonely place to be. “We’re pretty sparse in the industry,” she told the CBC. “I really wish there was a lot more.”

This idea seems to be supported by the aviation industry, but will require changes from commercial airlines themselves, beyond just lip service and an updated public relations strategy. Alaska Airlines published a feature on their women pilots shortly before one of their female pilots went public about being sexually assaulted by her co-pilot, Paul Engelien. Betty Pina is now suing Alaska Airlines because of their inadequate response to her allegation that she was drugged and raped by the 50-year-old captain at a hotel during a layover last year. Initially, she was afraid that if she spoke out, her career would be at risk, but she notified the Airline Pilots Association two days after the incident, when she saw a handprint-like bruise on her thigh. Alaska Airlines continued to employ Engelien while they investigated Pina’s claim, but placed Pina on paid leave until December 2017. Moreover, rather than focus on the assault itself, the investigation focused on the fact that the pilots had been drinking, which is not permitted for pilots on active duty. The fact that her alleged assailant is still employed signals that the industry isn’t making protecting women a priority.

When women complain that they’ve been subjected to  sexual harassment, groping, assault, or rape, there should be a set process followed by airlines, with some kind of accountability process. Airlines have to do more than simply manage complaints — they need to actually address and respond to them. In Lewis’ case, WestJet had received an assault complaint about the same pilot from another flight attendant back in 2008, two years before Lewis was assaulted. Her class action suit was filed after multiple women with similar complaints contacted her. “My hope is that by me doing this, it may protect other women,” Pina told the Seattle Times. “The culture needs to change. We can’t sweep this under the rug any longer.”

Men will do what they are allowed to do, and commercial airlines have demonstrated a pattern of ignoring sexist behaviour and protecting offenders. Women working in aviation, whether as pilots or flight attendants, need to be able to trust and rely on their co-workers for respect and for safety, particularly because the cabin and plane itself are such enclosed spaces. There is literally no escape while in flight.

The fact that pilots often stay at the same hotel, together, also creates a potentially dangerous situation, meaning employee behaviour must be monitored even when not in fight.

From doing outreach and providing mentorship; to ensuring a supportive, safe, and accountable workplace; to improved benefits and flexibility in scheduling, there is much more the industry can and should do to help level the playing field. Just having more women pilots flying, in and of itself, will begin to change the culture of the industry. As Armstrong points out, “Just putting the idea out there that women are pilots too can change the perspective of young girls. Making sure women know that there is a supportive and encouraging community of men and women in the aviation industry will help propel others forward.”

In 2018, women should feel confident that they can fly, free from intimidation or harassment.

Abigail Byle is a freelance writer from Winnipeg interested in issues relating to gender, race, and the environment.

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