Last July, American Airlines flight 909 was about the take-off from Miami heading to Buenos Aires, Argentina. It is a red-eye flight, departs at midnight. Families gather to doze together with oversized stuffed animals. People escape the winter in South America to rejoice with thousands of tourists in Florida. They have a tan, are a little broke, but in general, are happy. This is why it was surprising to read the news about a group of passengers who de-boarded the plane, delaying their departure for about two hours. The reason: the pilot and co-pilot flying that night were women.
When the announcement was made in Spanish, referring to the two female pilots, the commotion began. A number of passengers insisted on de-boarding the plane. The subsequent removal of their luggage caused a long delay.
It was not due to a safety issue or a delayed connecting flight. The reason why this happened was because of prevalent sexism. The all-women crew were assessed differently, as if being a woman was a liability that justified a different kind of scrutiny regarding ability or capacity. This is a painful reminder of how ingrained and wired gender inequality is, and the challenging cultural and social barriers that women face in all spheres of life.
Today, women make less money than men at equal level jobs, they are victims of violence for the mere fact of being women, and they have to deal with the social expectations of performing flawlessly at work, at home, and in life. Women struggle constantly to be treated as full human beings, fighting institutions and laws dominated by men that seek to limit their basic rights, including decisions about their own bodies. In spite of the staunch fight that women put up every day, the pervasive force of discrimination continues to plague our society.
Unfortunately, this situation was not an isolated case. Historically, women pilots have faced sexism, prejudice, and marginalization. The experiences are numerous and common knowledge for people in the aeronautic industry. What Helen Richey – the first commercial pilot in the U.S.- faced in the 1930s is not so different from the experiences of women who dare to challenge the status quo and pursue a dream. A right every person should have regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
The International Society of Women Air Pilots (ISA) estimates that there are around “4000 female airline pilots out of 130,000 worldwide”, representing barely 3 percent. This rate is higher in the U.S. at 6 percent. The odds of having a female pilot on your flight are extremely low, but the chances of them facing blunt discrimination are still high. In order to eradicate these harmful practices and behaviors is fundamental to make them visible. In creating awareness about how discrimination manifests, each of us is able to act and speak up.
To contribute to this effort, the outstanding women at ISA shared with Defying Gender Roles some of their own stories, as a way to generate reflection on how gender inequality manifest in this industry but also as a reminder of the challenges that lay ahead in the quest for equality.
“747 captain for Northwest Airlines: we had men on some flights who deplaned when they saw ladies in the cockpit. We just shook our heads in amazement. Unfortunately, it is still going on, but it is their loss for being so clueless and close minded. They arrive at their destination late and probably for much more money!”
“There was a time, hard to believe but true, when Alaska airlines management allowed good customers to call corporate and find out which flights were scheduled with female pilots before booking. A complaint filed by the women pilots put an end to that. Unbelievable. Just the security issues of releasing that info is appalling. It could certainly have put the women pilots in jeopardy. Names of crew members are never made publicly available prior to a flight”
“It happens all over the world! I flew for a regional airline in South Africa, and on one of the legs we also had a man remove himself from the flight after seeing that the captain and first officer were both blonde females. We both honestly couldn’t have been bothered, as the way we saw it, we were going to be home relaxing and he would still need to get there, not guaranteed that his next flight would be any different. Sad but true in today’s world!”
“When I was the captain on a 747, a passenger complained as we were taxiing out that he wanted off the plane when the flight attendants announced I was the captain. He was throwing a fit so they asked me to come talk to him. We pulled over to the side of the taxi way and I went downstairs to have a chat. I said I was surprised that he waited this long to complain. I made quite a few announcements before we left the gate, introducing myself as the captain. He said, “with a female voice anyone would think it’s one of the flight attendants – So, there’s a flight attendant captain, now, I guess.” I said, “No, I’m the pilot Captain. There is no flight attendant captain. Now if you don’t want to be here, I don’t want you here, and the flight attendants and other passengers sure don’t want you here, so we can do all of us a favor and take you back to the gate. However, I am going to have to explain to the other four-hundred passengers, ground control, and our gate agents why we are returning, so I need your name. OK with you?” He said, “Well, I guess you got the training and are qualified”. I just stared at him. “Does that mean you’re going to sit here quietly and not cause my flight attendants anymore trouble?” Him, “I guess”. Me. “I want more than I guess. I want a Yes, Ma’am.” Him. “yes, ma’am”. And, so we continued. They tell me he didn’t say another thing”
“Ba3100 -Jetsteam- from MDT (Pennsylvania) to EWR (Newark). Female captain and I were doing triple EWR turns. On the first one, a male passenger saw me, got on the plane, saw the captain and got off the plane. Told the agent he’d take the next flight. The agent and I couldn’t look at each other or we would have started laughing! She also knew that the all-female crew was flying the next two EWR flight”
“Years ago Northwest Airlines (NW) staged a flight into Osaka with three women pilots on the DC10. I heard that bookings on NW dropped by 1/3 after the story aired in Japan. Complete backfire. Of course this could be a myth! Personally, when I was a 747 captain, the South East Asia mechanics would address the copilot instead of me. The copilot would look at me, I would answer the question, and he would repeat it back to the mechanic! By 2004, the Japanese mechanics would not do that…they were too professional and knew who the captain was”.
After you have read these stories, ask yourself: Would this happen to a man?
The experiences above are just a sample of the many challenges women face in their quest to be treated as equal. In sharing their stories, they are making evident how gender inequality permeates and limits their experience in life. These women challenge outdated, harmful gender norms and roles with strength and courage. But change only is possible if we all commit to stand together against these practices at the workplace, the schools, and at home. They are doing their part of the deal, now it is up to us to join them in their struggle against discrimination.