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  • Shirley Phillips, Ph.D., Non-Profit Mentor

It Takes a Tough Man to Dismiss Half the Population

When I started taking flying lessons in 1977 at the age of 14, I wasn’t aware it had been only a year since the first female pilot, Emily Howell-Warner, made it to the left seat of a U.S. airliner. I wasn’t clear on my career path—I just knew I wanted to have someone pay me to fly. As I gained more experience, other pilots would bring me articles about female pilots as a way to encourage me. It turned out that I would need encouragement; When I showed up for my first job as a flight instructor at a flying club, I found out my duties included many things outside the cockpit of an airplane. Unlike all the male instructors who went home, or stayed home, when they had no lessons, I was told I was required to stay to answer phones, update charts, and tidy up the place—for no pay.

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Shirley Phillips, Ph.D., Professor of Aeronautical Science, Science Writer, Researcher and Airline Transport Rated Pilot/Instructor

When I interviewed for a better paying instructor position at a busy flight school at the same airport, I was told my bachelor’s degree from a state university wasn’t good enough. They required their instructors to have graduated from one of the bigger universities with flight programs. I doubted the sincerity of those reasons for dismissing me when I picked up a brochure while heading out the door that advertised the flight school by saying, “It takes a tough man to make a great pilot.” My suspicions were confirmed when a male colleague got the job I wanted—he had less flight time than me, and no college degree at all.

My motivation came from the fact that once I started flying, I never wanted to do anything else.

I’m still not sure why I was so oblivious to gender bias in the industry prior to this, or why the fact that I rarely saw a female pilot didn’t deter me. My motivation came from the fact that once I started flying, I never wanted to do anything else. I still often lacked confidence, especially compared to my male pilot friends who were all so sure they would get assigned to fighters if they flew for the Air Force, or they would have their pick of airlines to fly for when they were ready. It is no mystery why females were not aspiring to join a fraternity where the rules were applied unevenly.


Two decades and two logbooks later, I was asked to speak at an Ace Camp for girls in high school who wanted to learn about becoming a pilot. I had reservations about doing this, especially as I waited for my turn and heard the other female pilots talk about the need to forsake any notions of having a typical family life if you were to succeed as a pilot. One said that she couldn’t even keep a houseplant alive when asked by a camper if it was possible to be a mother and a corporate pilot. Another pilot nodded in agreement, adding that getting to fly and layover in Paris or Madrid more than made up for her lack of a social life.


That was when I first noticed the hint of a frown on the faces of some of the campers. They had been excited as they heard tales about dodging goats on the runway in Morocco or flying the Clintons around in a private jet. Yet when a camper probed further, questioning what sacrifices had to be made for a career as a pilot, the mood in the room changed. As they heard over and over how female pilots must abandon thoughts of combining motherhood and their careers, I could see some campers who were previously smiling suddenly turn pensive.


That was when I knew that not only would I speak about my passion for flying, I would share how I left my pursuit of the left seat of an airliner for a job as a simulator instructor when my second daughter was born with a rare genetic disorder. I would describe the excitement of being a flight instructor in seven different aircraft in one day and cheering on my oldest daughter at her field hockey games after the last landing. I made sure they knew that there were many ways to be a pilot, and the thing they all had in common was that they beat being on the ground all day. After I spoke, several of the campers came up to tell me how much they appreciated hearing from a pilot who also was a mother, and that it made them more eager to consider flying as a profession.

I wonder if by limiting the ways we think about being a pilot, we have done a disservice to the girls out there who might want to fly and raise sons and daughters too.

As I look at how the percentage of female pilots has moved very little over the decades between when I started flying and now, I wonder if by limiting the ways we think about being a pilot, we have done a disservice to the girls out there who might want to fly and raise sons and daughters too. I wonder if the industry has considered how it fails to attract and retain female pilots by reinforcing the notion that there is only one way to be a pilot, and that the sky is not the only limit.


Shirley Phillips, Ph.D., is a Professor of Aeronautical Science at Southern New Hampshire University, Science Writer, Researcher and Airline Transport Rated Pilot/Instructor. She is an industry expert on human factors in aviation and is a published author.

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