Being A Female Pilot

I’ve dealt with sexism a lot in the line of work I’ve been in for the last 9 years. That being technical support over the phone. I’m good at what I do. I get higher than average customer service scores, but I still get little old ladies that I overhear whispering to their spouses that “The boys do seem to know a little better than the women when it comes to these things” while I’m troubleshooting something with them. I’ve had women get on the phone and tell me without me saying anything but “Thank you for calling, my name is Lindsay, how may I help you?” that they didn’t want to speak to me, they wanted to speak to a man. And it’s always women saying these things. I’m sure the men think it, and it’s probably the reason I get more resistance from men as well as women than do my male colleagues, but they won’t say it out loud. I get called “Honey” and “Sweetie” by men on the phone. I think I got a marriage proposal once, or he might have just promised to come to my wedding, I can’t remember. That was when I fixed his TV after he swore at me for a half an hour.

Anyway, I’ve had a request for thoughts on my experiences being a female pilot. Well so far it’s not near so bad as being a female in tech support. But then, so far, I’m not dealing with the public. Like in tech support, my fellow pilots don’t doubt my abilities. Or, well, if they do, it’s legitimate because I’m still pretty new to it. I may have my licence, but I’m about as skilled a pilot as a kid that just got their drivers licence. They’re fine to drive as long as they’re careful and pay attention to what they’re doing, but you don’t so much want to see them headed straight for downtown in the big city the moment the papers are signed. They joke that you have a “license to learn” but it’s not really a joke. But that’s not sexism.

But fellow pilots have not treated me with any disrespect. In fact, it seems like once you get into aviation, fellow pilots crawl out of the woodwork, almost – people you knew a long time, but didn’t know they’d had their private licence at one point. And they’re all automatically your friend. One of the first people to encourage me to pursue it was one of the guys at work. When he mentioned he’d done a private license, and I wistfully commented how much I’d love to learn to fly, he said, well there’s a school I hear is good, you should go check it out, and suddenly it was a real thing, not abstract wishing anymore. There was a place, and a name of a school, and a person who it didn’t occur to him to think I couldn’t do it.

And then there was my dad, with his worrying that no one would hire me because I’m a woman. This is a man, keep in mind, who has been self employed his entire life, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know what the phrase “affirmative action” means. He did agree to help me with co-signing student loans, though, so I like to think that his little outburst was a panicked oh-god-my-little-girl-is-going-out-to-do-something-dangerous-but-I-can’t-admit-I’m-worried-for-her-safety thing.

So, among people who know aeroplanes, things have been pretty amicable, short of one of the newer dispatchers asking me what he could do for me, in a way that made me think he thought I must be lost despite me walking confidently and purposefully toward the plane I was about to check out and take flying. But he might have said that to anyone he didn’t recognize – I can’t say, so I give people the benefit of the doubt.

Of course, my experiences so far are going to be coloured by two main things.

First, that I’m still in flight school and 99% of my interactions are with people getting paid to be nice to me. Not that I think any of them don’t believe in me as much as they do my fellow male students. It’s just when someone says, “Well obviously they’ll say that, they’re making money off of you,” I can’t deny that’s true.

The other thing I have to keep in mind is that St. Andrews recently won the title of “most female friendly airport”. It would be kind of sad if I were to be training at an airport with a title like that (and I understand Harv’s air was very much involved in that) and got slammed with sexism at every turn. So I also have to recognise that my experiences at St. Andrews may very well be more welcoming than at other airports.

So a lot of the anecdotes of sexism I know of come from other pilots. One, Cessna Chick, had a post one day about the reaction she got from some friends when she told them she was taking flight training. She’s dating a pilot, and these were the girlfriends and wives of his pilot friends, and their reaction was to smile and say “Oh, I went through that phase too.” Ugh.

The female instructors I’ve talked to all laugh about older male student who, the first time they showed up for lessons with them asked, “So where’s the instructor?” Sandra also told me about people asking her what she does for a living. When she says “I fly aeroplanes,” they have a tendency to answer “Oh, that must be exciting. What does your husband think of that?”

I’m sure I’ll get more of this stuff in the future. When I do, I’ll know how to deal with it – I’ve dealt with it before in tech support. But so far it’s been great. I’ve never been in such a supportive environment in my life.


4 responses to “Being A Female Pilot

  1. Sexism is something we will always have to put up with because we are women. We just learn, as you are learning, how to deal with it with humor, grace, and the occasional snarl. My husband, has reminded me there are forms of sexism that plague men, too. After some very lively discussions, I agree with him – on some things:) Keep flying!

    • I agree, there are times when men encounter sexism. Things like being expected to be strong and stoic, and the pressure put on them to be the bread-winner in a family, criticized for not being “manly”, things like that. Society is breeding men to be exactly what we’re complaining about as women, and it’s true that both men and women are contributing to this.

  2. It sounds like the challenges you’ve faced have been because you are a newby pilot not because you are female, so the challenges have in a sense become ‘sexless’ which is how it should be.

    On the issue of sexism in tech support I wonder whether it’s a generational thing as much as a gender thing. So are the 50+ customers more likely to be sexist than, say, the under 30’s? I’m not sure.

    It was interesting to note that a good number of the people who have helped along the way have been men: the guy at work who mentioned the flight school, the dad who co-signed the student loans, and I know from comments you’ve made on the site here in the past that you has a supportive husband. I’m sure you’ve had a lot of support and encouragement from the women around you as well of course.

    Your story seems to me to point the way forward to a time when ‘people’ (male and female) can see the potential in other ‘people’ (male and female) and give them help and encouragement. These are people who are friends, family, colleagues, whatever. How cool is that when it happens!

    Anyway, your story is ‘rather splendid’ as we might say in Britain…


    PS I’d agree with Nancy’s husband there is sexism that is aimed at men. It’s different from the kind of sexism that is aimed at women but it is there, I notice it most on our national media here in the UK. Personally I think irradicating stupid sexism, and replacing it with respect, will allow us (at last) to truly appreciate the differences between men and women.

    • Are the 50+ customers more sexist than the under 30’s? Absolutely, 100%. Especially the women.

      I’ve been surrounded lately by people who believe in me, and I don’t know that I would be able to push through all of this without it all. I grew up in a broken home, with parents very preoccupied with hurting one another, and I spent a lot of my developmental years trying to find ways of not being noticed and not needing attention or emotional support because it wasn’t there. A lot of the solutions to that was never taking on anything that I wasn’t one hundred percent sure that I could do, and could do by myself, without help, and that I could learn to do while no one was looking so that I could come back and show everyone the wonderful result. Writing, music and art is nice like that. Flying’s not. I don’t know if I would ever have dared trying if that guy at work had reacted like I imagine my mother would have reacted had she been the first one I told – skeptical of my abilities, worried about it being dangerous. But instead, the friends I’ve been surrounded with these days, the minute I said I’m considering taking flying lessons, every one of them said “Oh my god, that’s awesome, you should do it!” Nathan was a bit anxious about it when I told him, but he was careful to differentiate his own anxiety about flying, from any doubts about my ability to do it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s