As gender parity goes, 2019 has seen a slow, steady advancement of women in leadership positions, with women-owned businesses growing at a faster rate than all businesses across the U.S., according to a recent report by American Express. It’s been a slightly different story in the aviation industry.
Women make up just over 7% of all pilots in the U.S., according to the most recent data from the Federal Aviation Administration. The numbers are even worse for black women — who, based on recent estimates, make up fewer than 1% of all pilots holding airline transport, pilot, commercial, military, and/or certified flight instructor licenses.
“Out of almost 13,000 pilots [at United], about 900 of us are women,” says United Airlines Captain Theresa Claiborne. She’s credited with being the first African-American female pilot in the U.S. Air Force, in 1982. “Of those 900 women, 17 of us are black women, and right now we only have two black women captains.”
Claiborne points to the work of groups such as Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, Women in Aviation, and, most recently, a little-known one called Sisters of the Skies, of which she is president, as being agents of change.
Since Sisters of the Skies’ beginnings three years ago, co-founders Christine Angel Hughes and Nia Wordlaw, pilots for the U.S. military and United, respectively, have expanded it to include a network of more than 100 black female pilots and aspiring pilots, in an effort to support and build a more diverse next generation of aviation professionals. They do this through workshops, mentorships, and scholarships — something major airlines are starting to prioritize.
Globally, the three major U.S. airlines (United, Delta, and American) have the highest number of female pilots employed, and India’s IndiGo has the highest proportion of women making up their female pilot population, according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots. Currently, Alaska Airlines is the only major airline in the U.S. to make a verbal commitment with Sisters of the Skies to increase the percentage of female African-American pilots.
“We recognize the barriers to joining this industry are real, whether economic or the historical pipelines that sidestepped underrepresented groups, like women and racial minorities,” says Delta Air Lines spokeswoman Martha Whitt. “Our pipeline strategy is to grow, inspire, and nurture our future talent and ensure we have an employee base that’s reflective of the world we serve.”
Part of the years-long lack of diversity in the flight deck is systemic; it can take several years to get a pilot ranking, depending on the airline. The other part of it is endemic. For several decades, the majority of commercial airline pilots have been those with military aviation backgrounds — in other words, white men.
This issue of underrepresentation of minorities and women in military aviation reached its way to Capitol Hill earlier this year, when U.S. Senators Tom Cotton and Doug Jones introduced bipartisan legislation to address both the coming pilot shortage and the lack of diversity among pilot ranks. But a shift is coming.
“I’m 60 years old,” says Claiborne. “The retirement age is 65, and turnover is happening all over the industry. For the next 10 years, 50% of the U.S. pilots have not even started training yet.”
That gives Claiborne and her fellow female pilots optimism.
Global demand for commercial pilots is increasing, especially after years of decline due in part to changes in FAA pilot qualifications. Meanwhile, the number of student pilots has been steadily increasing — leaving seats open for a new crew to take over.
That’s where Sisters of the Skies hopes to make its mark — and help the flight deck look more like the world 30,000 feet below it.