Why isn't the male/female makeup of pilots and flight attendants proportionate to the population?
December 15, 2012 2:13 PM   Subscribe

Recently I went on a trip with my kid sister and each time, the pilots were men and the flight attendants were women and even while we were waiting to board, we watched the pilots and flight attendants for other airlines walk to their gates and it was always the same and she was curious and disgruntled about this, so I thought I would ask the hive mind. Are there institutional/systemic/socioeconomic reasons why the pilot/flight attendant makeup isn't proportionate to the population they serve?
posted by Sully to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Pilots are disproportionately drawn from the military, which is disproportionately male.
posted by downing street memo at 2:17 PM on December 15, 2012 [15 favorites]

Ex-Air Force pilots (of any country) are often jet rated when they retire, and have tons of experience, so have an easier time becoming commercial pilots.

Look for bias in Air Force recruitment and assignment to piloting duties.
posted by zippy at 2:18 PM on December 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Flying (and specifically piloting) is still very much a male-dominated realm. Additionally, a high percentage (though I think no longer the majority) of airline pilots are former military or, often, current reserve military, which also skews toward men.

Flight attendants were originally all women, and I think the entrance of men into this field has been slow because it's perceived as being "for women", in the same way that male nurses get all sorts of joking crap. Anecdotally, I've had pretty consistent 50/50 male/female flight attendant representation on most of my recent US-carrier international flights, and if my gaydar is accurate, the majority of the male flight attendants set it off.

And from a "but why?" question about the pilots, well, I mean, why aren't there more of [unrepresented gender] in [some particular gender-dominated field]? This isn't limited to pilots and flight attendants, and we don't really have good solid answers in other fields either.
posted by olinerd at 2:18 PM on December 15, 2012

CNN story from 2011. If you don't learn to fly in the military, it's about $100,000 to train. Also, airlines have been furloughing pilots, rather than hiring them.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:18 PM on December 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

I remember a news story from the 80s, where a woman succeeded as a pilot because she was unusually tall for her gender, and had wide enough hands to span the controls required.
posted by b33j at 2:24 PM on December 15, 2012

I'm remembering something about airlines hiring nurses to be flight attendants (née stewardesses) so the gender bias in nursing might come into play. Upon consulting Wikipedia's entry on flight attendants, it turns out I'm right and there's some more useful information as to why there is a gender imbalance:
The first female flight attendant was a 25-year-old registered nurse named Ellen Church.[4] Hired by United Airlines in 1930,[5] she also first envisioned nurses on aircraft. Other airlines followed suit, hiring nurses to serve as flight attendants, then called "stewardesses" or "air hostesses", on most of their flights. In the United States, the job was one of only a few in the 1930s to permit women, which, coupled with The Great Depression, led to large numbers of applicants for the few positions available. Two thousand women applied for just 43 positions offered by Transcontinental and Western Airlines in December 1935.[6]

Female flight attendants rapidly replaced male ones, and by 1936, they had all but taken over the role.[5] They were selected not only for their knowledge but also for their characteristics. A 1936 New York Times article described the requirements:

"The girls who qualify for hostesses must be petite; weight 100 to 118 pounds; height 5 feet to 5 feet 4 inches; age 20 to 26 years. Add to that the rigid physical examination each must undergo four times every year, and you are assured of the bloom that goes with perfect health."[5]

Three decades later, a 1966 New York Times classified ad for stewardesses at Eastern Airlines listed these requirements:

"A high school graduate, single (widows and divorcees with no children considered), 20 years of age (girls 19 1/2 may apply for future consideration). 5’2” but no more than 5’9,” weight 105 to 135 in proportion to height and have at least 20/40 vision without glasses."[7]

In the United States, they were required to be unmarried and were fired if they decided to wed.[6] The requirement to be a registered nurse on an American airline was relaxed as more women were hired,[6] and it disappeared almost entirely during World War II as many nurses enlisted in the armed forces.
Once a job is a pink-collar job, it doesn't change too quickly.
posted by Brian Puccio at 2:36 PM on December 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I agree with olinerd that male flight attendants are actually pretty common, at least on Delta which I fly most of the time. Is it possible that you maybe saw a few, but assumed they were pilots because they were in uniform?
posted by cabingirl at 2:52 PM on December 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

The active discrimination at the Air Force Academy over the years has probably contributed
posted by Blasdelb at 2:53 PM on December 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Male flight attendants are more common than female pilots by far. Airline pilots in the US are recruited heavily from the Air Force, in which branch of the service pilots are more disproportionately male than in Army, Navy, and Coast Guard air units.

As for women not being tall enough, the average woman in the US is 5'5", which is taller than the average man in lots of countries that have commercial air travel and air forces, including China. I doubt that aircraft manufacturers make controls too large for use by average-height men in the world's second-largest economy.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:05 PM on December 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm a former flight attendant. It's true female pilots and male flight attendants are more rare than the reverse but it's definitely not like coming across a female cab driver, which to me is almost like meeting a unicorn. I was never particularly surprised to have a female pilot and I definitely wasn't surprised to be working with male FAs. Straight male FAs were actually kind of surprise though. I think I've met three (that I know of) out of the hundreds of FAs I've worked with.
posted by Jess the Mess at 3:39 PM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

My son graduated from USAFA in 2008. There are a lot of up and coming young female pilots. There are certainly female pilots in the AF right now. So I'd expect that ratio to be changing in upcoming years.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:28 PM on December 15, 2012

Pilots are disproportionately drawn from the military, which is disproportionately male.

Mmm. Looking only at Ireland's airline, Aer Lingus, the military theories don't hold true. Ireland has a tiny military, and the airforce currently has a grand total of 17 fixed wing aircraft and just a microscopic number of pilots. Most of our commercial pilots definitely do not come out of the military, they come out of commercial pilot training schools (mostly in the US). They are also almost all men.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:16 AM on December 17, 2012

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