Gender Bias in Aviation Essay

Gender Bias in Aviation

            Much has been accomplished by women in aviation.  But are these women afforded the same amount of recognition for their accomplishments as men who achieve similar feats are?  Mention Orville and Wilbur Wright and most people would be able to tell you that they, collectively known as “The Wright Brothers”, invented the first aeroplane.  Most people would be able to tell you that Douglas Bader was the pilot who flew with false legs during the Second World War. But mention Jacqueline Cochran and you will probably get a funny look.  Not so many people know that she became the first woman to break the sound barrier, or indeed, that she was the founder of the WASPs (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots), a female military organization established during World War II. Many of the younger generation probably don’t even know who the WASPS were.  And how many people know that Jacqueline Cochran still holds more world aviation records than any other pilot, male or female? (Factmonster, 2006)

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This paper addresses the question of gender bias in aviation.

Even arguably the most famous woman in aviation, Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, which she did in 1928, and again in 1932 (the second voyage was solo), appears to have received the full acknowledgement which was her due.  Notwithstanding the facts that she was the first person ever to fly alone from Honolulu, and in 1937, together with a copilot, was lost at the age of 40 on a flight between New Guinea and Howland Island, on an attempt to fly around the world, she was not even given a mention in one of the first places I consulted to research this paper, The Boys’ Book of Heroes, published by Birn Bros Ltd (London) in approximately 1944, although male aviators abound in the “Heroes of the Air” section..

Of course, Amelia Earhart was instrumental in the breaking down of gender barriers just by doing what she did.  She was an instrumental pioneer in the field of female aviation. Every flight she undertook was proof enough that women could do adventurous things equally as well, if not better than men, in a time when only men were recognized as pilots.

One must remember that when Amelia Earhart was growing up, around the beginning of the 20th century, there was not much opportunity for women. This makes her accomplishments all the more remarkable.  It seems that Amelia rebelled against stereotypical expectations of her even in those early times.  She did not see why she could not do what adults deemed that only boys could do!  According to ameliaearhartmuseum.org, by Earhart’s own account, her childhood activities suggested she would lead an active adulthood. While the social standards of the time held that young girls should behave in a genteel and ladylike fashion, young Amelia was interested in adventure. She recalled being fascinated by mechanical things, and she once designed a trap to catch stray chickens. As the daughter of a railroad employee, she traveled often and thus “discovered the fascination of new people and new places.” She also realized early that boys were under fewer constraints than girls and questioned why. She liked “all kinds of sports and games” and was willing to try even those games adults considered only for boys. (ameliaearhartmuseum.org, 2006).

Perhaps very telling is a comment made by her father on his then nine year old daughter: “She gets an idea in her head and by golly, she stays right with it.”  Bravery and courage were never far from Amelia.  Perhaps her love of flying was borne from this childhood incident: In one of the more dramatic moments of Earhart’s childhood, she, her sister, and a neighbor boy built a roller coaster at the family’s home in Kansas City. The track began at the top of a tool-shed, about eight feet off the ground. The children, with a little help from their Uncle Carl Otis, constructed the track from boards and greased it with lard. Amelia made the trial run in a car made from an empty wooden crate. As her sister recalled, Amelia “rode the crate down the track much faster than either of us anticipated. As it careened down the track, we heard the sound of splintering wood. The car and Amelia departed the track when the car hit the trestle. Both tumbled onto the ground. Amelia jumped up; her eyes alight, ignoring a torn dress and bruised lip. She exclaimed happily, “Oh, Pidge, (a pet name for Muriel) it’s just like flying!” (ameliaearhartmuseum.org, 2006).

But how was it that, living in the man’s world that it was, she came to the realization that she wanted to be a pilot?  Women of today’s enlightened times have little real comprehension of the bias that women faced in Amelia Earhart’s day.  Perhaps taking the following information from news.com into account makes it easier for us to understand.

“During World War II, more than 1,000 women were trained as military pilots.  While they were not allowed to be combat pilots, they flew all sorts of missions.  But their story was a classified secret for over three decades. On the 60th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe, VOA Producer Zulima Palacio found two women determined to tell their story and keep it alive. The day Deanie Bishop turned 21, she applied to join the Women Airforce Service Pilots, known as WASP.  It was 1942, and the middle of World War II. “Our basic function was to fly the missions to relieve male pilots for combat,” she said.

More than 1,000 women became military pilots and were station at 120 Army air bases across the United States.   They never flew outside the country or into combat.  And they were never taken into the military. But the people flying with them were.

“Navigators had to be trained, somebody had to fly that plane so that navigators could train, and bombardiers — gunners — had to be trained for combat; somebody had to fly those missions,” said Ms. Bishop.(news.com, 2006)

There were many disparities that the women of the WASPs had to face. Despite putting themselves into danger for their country, if they were killed on duty, they were sent home in simply a pine coffin.  For many many years history denied these women the acknowledgement that they were in fact an important part of the war effort.

“It was not until 1977, the Air Force or somebody in public relations, put a little statement that says the Air Force was graduating 10 women pilots, the first women in history to fly military aircraft.  And we said, ‘Now you cross the line,’ ” Ms. Bishop said.

The battle in Congress was hard, but they won.  Their records were opened and they were finally recognized as veterans.  Although, Deanie says, that only meant the right to have a U.S. flag draped over their coffins.  Later on, two medals came in the mail. (info.com, 2006).

Men were awarded these medals in ceremonies filled with pomp and occasion.

We must take all of the above circumstances into account when we consider the fact that Amelia Earhart was going to make aviation her career.

“After graduating from high school, Amelia planned to attend college, but her plans were put on hold after she met four wounded World War I veterans on the street. After hearing of their plight, Amelia decided to study nursing. During the war, Amelia worked as a military nurse in Canada. At the war’s end, she became a social worker at the Denison House in Boston and taught English to immigrant children. Amelia enjoyed watching airplane stunt shows, which were quite popular during the 1920s. One day, after taking a ten minute plane ride, which cost $1, Amelia knew she must learn to fly.” (Sahlman, 2006)

She took on odd jobs and earned the money to take flying lessons.  She first flew solo in 1921 and by the next year she had sufficient funds with which to buy her own plane.  During the 1920s, Amelia lived with her mother and sister in Boston and continued teaching at Denison House. Flying was merely a hobby for her at that time. However, in 1928, Amelia received a call from Captain Hilton H. Railey asking her to join pilots Wilmer Stultz and Louis Gordon on a flight from America to England. Although she was only a passenger, Amelia became the first woman to cross the Atlantic on a plane called the Friendship on June 17-18, 1928. A publisher named George Putnam covered the story, and in 1931, the two married. (Sahlman, 2006).

Until now, flying had been a hobby for her, but the renown that this trip brought her encouraged her to justify this renown.  This led to her historic achievements.  The impact that Amelia’s achievements had upon the women of her time was marked, and almost immediately obvious.  Women took heart from the fact that Amelia Earhart faced gender bias during her childhood and during her career, but did not let this stand in the way of her success.  Because of her, and other women who stood up against gender discrimination, women of today face less gender bias, and the number of female pilots was constantly increasing, passing from 200 in 1930 to 700-800 in 1935. It was still a very small proportion at the time, compared to the number of licensed male pilots, ranging in the hundreds of thousands. (airodyssey.net, 2006). But nonetheless, it was a noticeable increase.

Today there are 40824 female pilots in the United States. Of these, there are 16,817 female private pilots, 8,161 commercial pilots, and 5,002 airline transport pilots. Almost 6,000 of these women are also flight instructors. Women have been entering the Air Force in growing numbers. As of 2004 there were 73,074 women in the Air Force. Women began entering pilot training in 1976, fighter pilot training in July 1993 and navigator training in 1977. (Young Eagles.com, 2006)

I believe this number would have been significantly less had it not been for the adventures of Amelia Earhart.  Something else that Amelia Earhart did was to prove to women that they could be equally, or more, effective in traditional men’s roles such as aviation as men could. Coming at a similar time to when women had had to take over the running of factories while men went to war, and shown themselves that they could do it, she helped to break down the gender bias held by women against themselves – the “I can’t succeed in a man’s role” attitude.  Women had had leaders and heroines before – Florence Nightingale comes to mind – but now women did not have to confine themselves to traditional female roles such as nursing.  They could be more adventurous.

Is gender bias in aviation completely eradicated though?  According to Mary Ann Turney in her book Tapping Diversity: Talent in Aviation: Culture, Gender and Diversity”, the answer to this is no.  She states that there appears to be a need to provide training for crewmembers regarding differences between men and women in leadership styles.  Lack of understanding these differences inhibits communication and continues to cause gender related bias. (Turney, 2004).

In addition there is still a gender gap in salary across the board, although much less than it was in previous years. And there are some advantages for women in non traditional female careers:  According to Labor Department figures, women who choose non-traditional careers such as dentists (just 20 percent are women) or airline pilots or navigators (less than 4 percent are female), can expect to have lifetime earnings that are 150 percent higher than those of women who choose traditional careers. (Pay: The Gender Gap, 2006). Court cases have been fought and won against this and other types of gender discrimination in the aviation industry.  In April 2005, a pilot was refused the right to work part-time to look after her baby won her sex discrimination case. Jessica Starmer, 26, said she would have had to resign from her £50,000 a year job if BA bosses did not cut her working hours so she could look after her daughter Beth.  Mrs Starmer, who has spent 800 hours a year flying short-haul Airbus A320 flights from Heathrow, took her case to an employment tribunal which has now found in her favour. (Thisismoney.co.uk, 2006).  These types of cases are becoming more and more common, and seem to be giving women the success that they need.

Gretchen Cook wrote the following in Women’s E-News, in 2004:

Gender-bias suits enjoyed a banner year in 2004 despite an increasingly unfriendly legal and political climate. Successful litigants, lawyers say, often measure victory more in terms of boosted confidence than dollars. Looking back on it, 2004 was a banner year for gender-bias suits as U.S. female employees brought actions against some of the biggest companies in the world. A suit pending against Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Ark., that covers up to 1.6 million women charges the mega-retailer with systematically denying women pay and promotions. Costco faces a class action by 650 current and former female employees, who make up 50 percent of its work force but hold just 12 percent of general manager posts. The complaint says that job openings at the retailer–based in Issaquah, Wash.–are not even posted and that there are not any application procedures–other than a “tap on the shoulder”–almost always by a man.  Last July there was a spree of settlements.  That month, Home Depot agreed to pay $5.5 million to settle a discrimination and retaliation suit on behalf of 38 Colorado employees who alleged hostile work environments and discrimination on the basis of sex, race and national origin at the home-improvement giant based in Atlanta, Ga.  Boeing in July said it would pay between $40.6 million and $72.5 million to as many as 29,000 current and former female workers in its Seattle-area aircraft plants in July to settle a class-action gender bias suit against the aerospace company. (Cook, 2004)

These high-profile cases have drawn much-needed attention to issues of workplace discrimination, said Irma Herrera, the executive director of Equal Rights Advocates, a San Francisco-based organization that works to secure equal rights and opportunities for women and girls through litigation and advocacy. The group is working on behalf of female employees of Wal-Mart, and the plaintiffs’ lawyers have received over 5,000 calls for current and former employees since the class-action suit became public, Herrera said.

“But for every woman who calls us, there are 1,000 out there who aren’t calling,” she said. “We have to focus on what we can do to ensure compliance with anti-discrimination laws and what we can do to keep these issues in the public eye.” (Cook, 2004)

Amelia Earhart achieved much in the field of female aviation, including the breaking down of (although not complete eradication of) gender bias.  Even though there are still gender inequalities in place today, these are much less than the ones the pioneer Amelia Earhart had to face.

She proved beyond doubt that women can be as effective or more so in traditional men’s roles as the men themselves, but we can see that there are still steps which need to be taken in order to completely eradicate bias..

Works Cited

            Airodyssy, 2006 “Women in the Left Seat” retrieved 7 Nov 2006 from the website http://www.airodyssey.net/articles/women.html

            Ameliaearhartmuseum.org, 2006, “Stories About Amelia” retrieved 7 Nov 2006 from the website http://history1900s.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?site=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ameliaearhartmuseum.org%2Fchildhd%2Fmain.htm

            Cook, Gretchen, 2004 “Gender Bias Victories Pay More than Money” retrieved 8 Nov 2006 from the website http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm?aid=2114

            News.com, 2006, “US Women Pilots in World War II Struggle to Tell their Stories”, retrieved 8 Nov 2006 from the website http://www.voanews.com/english/archive/2005-05/2005-05-04-voa85.cfm

Factmonster, 2006, “Women In Aviation”, retrieved 7 Nov 2006 from the website http://www.factmonster.com/ipka/A0768334.html

Pay: The Gender Gap, 2006 retrieved 7 Nov 2006 from the website http://www.careerbuilder.com/JobSeeker/careerbytes/CBArticle.aspx?articleID=541&cbRecursionCnt=1&cbsid=94f862650d5b4fe2be29f9258025e5ca-216271240-RR-4

Sahlman, Rachel, 2006 “Amelia Earhart” retrieved 7 Nov 2006 from the  website http://www.incwell.com/Biographies/Earhart.html

“The Boys’ Book of Heroes” (no author given, approx 1944), published by Birn Bros Ltd (London)

This Is Money.co.uk, (2006) retrieved 8 Nov 2006 from the website http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/news/article.html?in_article_id=399940&in_page_id=2

Turney, Mary Ann, (2004) “Tapping Diverse Talent in Aviation: Culture, Gender and Diversity” Ashgate Publishing, England and USA

Young Eagles.com, (2006) retrieved 8 Nov 2006 from the website http://www.youngeagles.org/questions/afmviewfaq.asp?faqid=351

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