In today’s post-9/11 world, we rarely get to see pilots anymore. They sit in locked cockpits and even their visits to the bathroom are sequestered from the rest us. If we’re lucky, we catch a glimpse behind the horizontal bar cart or thin wired gate, but for obvious (and good) reasons, we can only look from afar.
Yet on those rare occasions when we can actually catch a glimpse, rarely are those pilots female, which is hardly a surprise, given that only about 4 percent of all licensed airline pilots are women as reported by CBS This Morning.
But on a recent United Airlines flight from San Francisco to Maui, the entire flight crew “the pilots, flight attendants, gate agents and even some of the ground crew were all women – a rare occurrence in the male-dominated world of aviation.” The occurrence was so rare, in fact, that CBS This Morning reported the story.
“Major U.S. airlines are looking to replace as many as 18,000 retiring pilots over the next seven years,” said the CBS reporter. “But even as airlines are poised to hire thousands of new pilots, the number of women remains small. Of the 1,700 pilots attending the job fair at the Annual Women Aviation Conference, just 200 are women.”
I recently had the chance to share an airport shuttle bus back to the terminal standing right next to a pilot… and a female one at that. I was proud and impressed and wondered what it must be like to work in mostly-male dominated sky. But all those questions quickly faded when I noticed her attire. A suit complete with stripes on the shoulder… and a tie. A tie?
“You don’t get to see too many female pilots.” I stated.
“That’s because there’s not too many of us,” she laughed.
“And if you don’t mind me asking, I assume the tie is part of the uniform?”
“Yes,” she confirmed.
“How do you feel about that?” I asked.
“Well, it’s done so people can distinguish us from the flight attendants.”
According to the Smithsonian’s American by Air site, in the 1930s, “pilots were given military-style uniforms to reflect their status. Pan American emulated luxurious ocean liner service by calling its flying boats ‘Clippers’ and its pilots ‘Captains,’ and attiring its crews in naval-style uniforms with white hats and navy-blue, double-breasted jackets and rank insignia on the sleeve cuffs. Other airlines followed suit. Many of these customs continue today.”
“Well, do you like it?” I inquired.
“It’s okay. They tried to distinguish us at first with more blousy shirts… but the flouncy sleeves sometimes got in the way of flying.”
“Yeah, I hate when that happens,” I retorted and we shared a laugh.
After a bit of discussion, she admitted that it used to bother her, but that she really doesn’t think about it anymore until the occasional woman like me asks her about it. I asked if she thought it was odd that she had to dress like a man in order to do her job. She thought about it and replied, “Hmm, when you put it like that, yes, it sort of is.”
Since then, I’ve noted a number of other jobs that either can or do require women to wear ties – waitresses, security guards, casino dealers, members of the military and police officers. Amusingly enough, I couldn’t think of a job where a man would have to wear traditionally women’s attire.
In the scheme of things, while it makes little difference, it is interesting how we continuously interpret a woman’s attire in connection to her job. I recently spoke with a female CEO of a Fortune 500 company who told me that her head of HR questioned whether her shoes were appropriate for her role.
Perhaps United Airlines Captain Wanda Collins said it best when discussing her unique role as the captain of that now famous all-female flight, “Sometimes it’s hard because you feel like nobody takes you seriously, but for as many times as you get that feeling, you also get the feeling of people looking at you and they’re inspired by you.”
And, fortunately enough for all of us, inspiration happens no matter what we’re wearing.
Gail Becker is Edelman’s president of strategic partnerships and global integration.