Female aviators face turbulence

Saturday March 18 2017

Accolades such as the first female Boeing 787 captain worldwide being African, Kenya’s Capt Irene Koki Mutungi (pictured) for that matter, are not enough. PHOTO | FILE

Accolades such as the first female Boeing 787 captain worldwide being African, Kenya’s Capt Irene Koki Mutungi (pictured) for that matter, are not enough. PHOTO | FILE 

By Michael Otieno

On March 8, the world marked International Women’s Day with media focus on women achievements, accompanied by calls for gender equality that are usually voiced on such occasions.

In the aviation industry, airlines went out of their way to showcase the female professionals in their fold, particularly singling out the few working in traditionally male-dominated departments like flight operations and technical areas.

It was as if they were all striving to be heard above the din of “We too have females doing more than handling reservations and being cabin crew.”

When I mentioned to a colleague that I cannot wait to see the same airlines celebrate with equal pomp their male employees who have forayed into predominantly female-dominated roles during International Men’s Day, he thought of it as ridiculous.

There was a celebratory mood at airlines as the marked the 7th Annual Women Of Aviation Worldwide Week, which took place from March 6-12.

This is an annual occasion which commemorates the anniversary of the first female worldwide, Raymonde de Laroche, to be licensed as a pilot on March 8, 1910.

But this was not the first time in recorded history that women took to the sky or had an interaction with aviation. Marie Élisabeth Thible of France is recorded as the first woman to fly in an untethered hot air balloon in 1784.

Since then, women have had some outstanding achievements that have shaped the industry from a first and innovations point of view.

In history

From Maria Beasley who created an improved version of life raft in 1880, to Valentina Tereshkova of Russia who became the first woman to fly to space in 1963, to Hedy Lamarr whom we have to thank for inflight Wi-Fi as we know it today.

Going by Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures on the life story of three African American women and their role in winning the space race for the US’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), women have been at the core of aviation more than we imagine.

So, if women have had such a long and illustrious dalliance with aviation, why and when did it develop into such a male- dominated industry? Or has the equation always been skewed in favour of men?

Global statistics on gender parity in aviation are grim. In over 100 years of commercial liners, the aviation industry is not close to achieving gender parity; not by a long shot.

Per IATA figures, of its approximately 241 member airlines, there are less than 10 female chief executives with only one in the developed world.

In fact, no major US airline has ever had a female CEO; none of the top 30 airlines globally has a female CEO.

East Africa is at least proud to have Sauda Rajab as Precision Air’s managing director.  

In technical roles such as piloting, there is one female for every 35 male commercial pilots, according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots.

For instance, of the about 450 pilots at Kenya Airways, only 50 are female — and even fewer are captains, for an airline that is 40 years old.

Historically, to become pilots, the male-dominated industry set lopsided entry criteria that subjected entrants to various strength and height requirements that automatically disqualified many women.

This has since changed but there are still many hurdles for women seeking an equal footing in male-dominated roles in aviation.

While many airlines, even those in the region, will project the image of being an equal opportunity employer, there are rampant cases of profiling and discrimination against women when it comes to piloting and technical roles such as maintenance and flight operations.

Since they are already just a few of them, it is not commonplace to have an all female cockpit crew, but they are there.

Generally, females in these roles suffer job pressure as well as pressure of having to juggle a family life too, challenges that their male counterparts hardly face.

Taking things further up, at policy level, the International Civil Aviation Organisation – secretariat gender statistics at the end of 2015 show women make up only 30 per cent of professional positions.

Representation of women on the Council of ICAO is seven out of 36 members. The organisation is committed to a 50-50 gender parity by 2030.

Accolades such as the first female Boeing 787 captain worldwide being African — Kenya’s Capt Irene Koki Mutungi for that matter — are not enough. There must be an effort to have women take their rightful place and lead as aviators.

Michael Otieno is an aviation consultant based in Nairobi. Twitter: @pmykee143, Email: [email protected]