You may not have to become an expert in international affairs to fly around the world, but as a profession, I think we benefit from respecting that our passengers and crew may live very different lives than us. Even as flight instructors, we can easily set a tone that is not welcoming to someone who is thinking they want to fly--or get back into flying. Sometimes it’s the little things that make a big difference in attracting and retaining the best aviation professionals.
When I was teaching for a major air carrier, I was constantly having my pen swiped. We were still teaching in a classroom setting then, and so pilots, overwhelmingly male, would take the pen I was using off my desk and not return it. I get it, being an absentminded pen swiper myself, but the funny thing is that one day I brought in a pink pen. The pen still had black ink, like my other mostly black pens, but it was a vivid hot pink on the outside. My pen was never touched again. It’s an unscientific conclusion, but I suspect that it was not so acceptable for a male pilot to go around with a pink pen in his flight bag. So I always used pink pens after that, partly to cut down on pilferage, but also because I thought that perhaps having a little less masculine vibe would be more welcoming when female pilots were in the class.
Later on, I was teaching about the Air Carrier Access Act, which governs how airlines handle the needs of passengers with disabilities. At the risk of divulging how old I am, at the time we were still using a slide projector. We had slides on the standard bullet points about the rules, and invariably someone in the class would make a comment about “the kids who rode the little school bus.” I have a daughter who rode the little bus, and although part of me just took it in stride, another part thought that maybe this was a teaching moment.
So for one class I slipped in a slide at the end that showed my daughter using her walker to get around. Again the comment was made before we got to that slide, and when I brought up the next slide of my daughter there was an audible gasp in the room. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t singling out the person who had made the comment, because that was never my intent. However, I took the opportunity to say that you never know what the story is about the person you are interacting with on a professional level. Maybe the captain on your next flight, during your probationary year where captains write up evaluations, has a sibling who uses a wheelchair and gets picked up by the “little bus.” Do you really want to take that chance?
I know there is more attention these days focused on language and behavior, and it can seem challenging to sometimes know what to say. I think if we always take a moment to check whether we are acting professionally, it will serve us well. That also goes for how we arrange the workplace, whether it’s a crew lounge or the lobby of your flight school. Are all of the pictures, memorabilia, and furnishings welcoming to everyone? Is there a vibe so masculine that even the lady’s room is unwelcome to female flight students? I’ve been told more than once that the lady’s room couldn’t be cleaned because they only have males around. Really? I would hate to think how funky the men’s room would be if all females refused to go in to clean them.
Are their customs and traditions that might be inappropriate or awkward if your student is a sixteen-year old female? I had one female student who didn’t want to solo even after learning to land better than me. When I questioned her further, she admitted that she didn’t want her shirttail cut off on her solo--even by another female. I am not saying get rid of the tradition, but to consider whether it should be clear that it’s optional. Or maybe if only certain students feel comfortable with it then it’s time for a change. For if we lose a student pilot who could grease every landing because of a shirttail, that is a loss too great. Because if there is one thing we all share, it is wanting to feel like we belong, and I hope one day soon that male pilots will feel free to start swiping my pink pens, or purple pens, or orange pens.... Better yet, I hope we can soon get past this notion that the color of your pen has anything to do with the way you fly an airplane.
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.