Just over 5% of airline pilots worldwide are female, according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots. This means that for every twenty flights you take, just one of them will be piloted by a woman. To say this is embarrassing would be an understatement: it’s downright wrong. Yet in one country, that figure soars to 13%. A surprising leader when it comes to equality in aviation, that country is India.
Though it may sound like an impossibly fast change, the transition could be easier than it seems. One of the primary reasons so many more pilots are men today is that many of them grew up in the second half of the 20th century, a time when women were seriously ostracized from the skies. Yet as a new generation of pilots cuts their teeth, that attitude no longer holds. Flying clubs around the world are seeing more female students than ever before; the FAA says more than 12% of flying students are now female, and in India, that figure is doubled.
Things are not quite as rosy in other parts of the world, though. While just over 5% of global pilots are female, that number is even lower, 4.4%, in the U.S. Yet not all airlines are created equal, and some U.S. carriers far outperform others. Of the world’s largest carriers, United Airlines has the highest number of female pilots at 7.4%, while others like Southwest (3.6%) pull the U.S. average down. American Airlines, which recently faced pressure after its flight attendants called its newest performance policy “inhumane,” matches the nation’s average exactly at 4.4%. British Airways, whose website was massively hacked over the past several weeks, and Lufthansa round out the global top three.
The question of why a global shift toward hiring more female pilots hasn’t happened sooner is a troubling one. A 2018 survey of 157 female pilots identified prohibitively expensive flight training as the number one reason why women don’t pursue the career. While high fees are certainly an issue—the Aviation Academy of America charges more than $50,000 for a year of training—men have to pay up, too. What may be a more insightful answer is the markedly different relationship men and women have with machines: while boys are often encouraged to get their hands dirty and experiment with mechanical objects from a young age, most girls are not. This may seem inconsequential, but as the sentiment compounds over years, it becomes a much bigger deal. It’s not easy to make a career specializing in machines when you’ve been told your whole life that machines are not for you.