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Gender Equality: Why The World Needs More Female Pilots

Jo Anne Toral, Alpha Aviation graduate and Cebu Pacific First Officer, believes now is the time for female pilots to take off.

Jo Anne Toral, Cebu Pacific First Officer.

Across the globe, in all sectors and industries, opportunities for women are more plentiful than ever before. And while there is still plenty of progress to be made, it feels like there are very few areas in which we can’t achieve their potential.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the aviation industry. Not only are women proving themselves to be extremely capable pilots, but owing to a pronounced global pilot shortage, they are increasingly being seen as the solution to a potential industry crisis.

From my own experience, this increase in demand is particularly pertinent to the Asia-Pacific region. Of the 617,000 additional commercial pilots that Boeing predicted will be needed to service the commercial aviation industry worldwide by 2035, 216,000, or 35 percent, will be needed in Asia-Pacific alone.

Yet for women to fulfil their potential in the industry, a huge gender imbalance must be overcome: of the 130,000 pilots across the globe, a mere 4,000 (just 3 percent) are estimated to be female.

I am lucky in that my father was a pilot, my mother a former flight attendant, and my brothers are pilots, so coming from a family of aviators, piloting was a career that I was naturally drawn to. But many women still lack the confidence and belief to take up a career in the skies, hamstrung by the current gender imbalance and the perception that flying is a ‘masculine’ profession.

I can certainly relate to this. During my training, knowing that I was entering an industry as part of a very small minority became a mental hurdle. It made me feel like I had to prove everything, which in turn made me much more critical of myself. I never doubted my ability, but with the default mental, physical, emotional (and for me, spiritual) demands of training to be a pilot, added personal pressure was unwelcome.

As a result, there needs to be greater clarity and drive from the top of the industry to drive home the message that women can, and do, perform in the cockpit. Our schools need to ensure young girls and women are being encouraged to study Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, and are exposed to inspirational women working in STEM careers, from a young age. And our governments and airlines need to work hard to ensure there is career flexibility, accessibility and opportunity for women looking to become pilots.

This isn’t to say progress isn’t being made. Despite the statistics and barriers, the stigma around female pilots is fading — and female pilots are breaking down barriers. Last year, 26-year-old Kate McWilliams became the world’s youngest commercial pilot, while the number of female pilots is slowly creeping up. But individual role models can’t carry all the burden, and greater institutionalised support is still required, from top to bottom.

I was fortunate in that my pilot training school, Alpha Aviation, offered comprehensive institutionalised support to women. Financially, bursaries and grants were available, and as training more female pilots was a priority for Alpha, I had the opportunity to learn and develop with fellow aviatrixes.

The aviation sector is ripe for transformation. Attitudes to women are changing and the tools are there now for enterprising women to fulfil their ambitions and shape the future of our industry.

With confidence, skill and industry support, I know how much can be achieved. Conditions are favourable; now is the time for women in aviation to take off.

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