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  • Shirley Phillips, DPT, Non-Profit Mentor

Aviation Could Use the Wisdom of RBG

When I was working as a professor of aeronautical science at a small New England college, several times a semester a student would come to my office to discuss their concerns about balancing family life with flying professionally. I suspect they approached me because I was the only faculty member in the department who had lopsided dinosaur-looking clay sculptures and crayon drawings from my daughters’ various art projects decorating my windowsill, also probably because I was the only woman. The other faculty members either had no children, or none still at home, or kept their offsprings’ creations out of their office. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with separating work and family, but I preferred to surround myself with the other part of my life that brought me joy besides flying airplanes. (And, full disclosure, some of those craft projects were so creepy that I didn’t want them staring at me from my nightstand when I went to sleep.)

Many students were the first in their family to fly, and others had grandfathers who took them up for their first ride in their Piper Cub or Cessna-150. They came with little information about the schedules of professional pilots, but even in the sequestered environment of a college campus, they quickly became privy to stories of endless nights in a Newark crash pad, and Christmas Eves spent flying grandparents and cousins to holiday getaways while their own families celebrated without them. While I could share stories of how pilots managed commuting and finagled their schedules to get time off for their childrens’ dance recitals, I had to acknowledge there were challenges in flying for a living that were not present in professions where your “office” stayed put.

Some of these students were already in serious relationships, while others just knew that marriage and babies were something they desired. Some wanted to know if corporate pilots had schedules that were more favorable than airline pilots, and others wanted to know if flying a Boeing 737 was better than flying internationally if you had a family. One thing that nearly all these students shared was they were men.

The thing that struck me is that woman pilots who decided not to keep flying for reasons having to do with childcare and family were often transparent about that decision. Maybe that is partly because of the obvious visibility of their choice to become parents, but I think it is also still considered more acceptable for a woman versus a man to make that decision. The male pilots who moved into non-flying positions, or who decided to stop flying professionally so they could be home more consistently, often bore the brunt of criticism, judgment, and snide remarks. Some of those men wanted to continue flying professionally but struggled to find a position that allowed them to share the childcare duties with their partners who had their own careers.

I often thought that one of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s many brilliant legal strategies was to bring gender discrimination lawsuits with male plaintiffs to court, thereby showing that gender discrimination is harmful to both men and women. The same could be said of gender bias in the field of aviation. As women continue to graduate from medical school and law school at rates equal to, or greater than men, and enter science fields in greater numbers, they and their partners who fly professionally would also benefit from more family friendly work arrangements.

Conversely, if aviation is going to recruit and retain the best and the brightest pilots, then the half of the population that provides the bulk of caregiving, need more caregiver friendly work arrangements if they are going to be drawn to the profession and have the ability to flourish there. For those who don’t have caregiving responsibilities now, that can change in an instant, as COVID has shown us. Let’s stop making pilots choose between their love of flying, and the family that welcomes them home.

Dr. Shirley Phillips was a professor of aeronautical science and human factors and is an airline transport rated pilot and flight instructor with a type rating on the Airbus A320. She has a MA in science writing from Johns Hopkins University and is currently writing a book about her flying experiences.


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