Gender Issues in Aviation: Pilot Perceptions and Employment Relations

By Mitchell, Jim; Kristovics, Alexandra et al. | International Journal of Employment Studies, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Gender Issues in Aviation: Pilot Perceptions and Employment Relations


Mitchell, Jim, Kristovics, Alexandra, Vermeulen, Leo, International Journal of Employment Studies


This article examines the Australian component of a crosscultural study of gender issues in aviation. For over twenty years female pilots have had access to the professional pilot positions within airlines but their numbers continue to be very low. Both the civil and military sectors in the aviation industry continue to be dominated by masculine perceptions and behaviours. The survey of 1114 pilots in Australia was conducted to ascertain their perceptions of female pilots. The results supported a two factor structure consisting of flying proficiency and safety orientation. Results also revealed that females scored higher on these two dimensions than males, and that opportunity to fly with the opposite gender improved male perceptions of female pilots on Safety Orientation. Those undertaking Crew Resource Management (CRM) training also revealed more negative perceptions of females on this factor also. The implications of these perceptions in respect of recruitment and training and development are considered and continuing inequities, stereotypes and bias are highlighted.

INTRODUCTION

The profession of aviation pilot has been historically, and still is, a male dominated occupation. Notwithstanding aviation's history of legendary women aviators, the airline sector of the aviation industry has been slow in recruiting, training and advancing female pilots. This has been regardless of the anti-discrimination, equal employment opportunity and affirmative action legislation enacted in many countries. The business community has instituted many affirmative action programs and adopted human resource policies and procedures that meet these legislative requirements. However in aviation, masculine beliefs, values and perceptions (having the 'right stuff') appear to continue to dominate the industry and the pilot profession. Originating in the United States military, the 'right stuff' is characterised by aviators and astronauts who were courageous, single minded and driven to successfully achieve personal and organisational goals. This perception and behaviour was popularised in movies such as 'Top Gun' and Wolfe's (1980) book 'The Right Stuff'. The masculine culture of the industry has led to female pilots experiencing sexism, discrimination, prejudice, hostility and inappropriate discourse (Davey and Davidson, 2000:198-199). The concept and use of a seemingly harmless protective epithet 'the right stuff' 'becomes, under close scrutiny, the very core of inequality and discrimination based on gender' (Bateman, 1987). Generally, there has been a paucity of articles about the issues faced by female pilots in the industry, although Davey and Davidson's (2000) article provides a well- researched paper on the experiences of female pilots. Turney's (1995; 2000) research contributes to the discussion.

Female pilots inhabit a profession steeped in patriarchal systems of dominance involving organisational power and labour processes. It is in this domain that there is a prevailing construction of gender involving discourses with various 'forms, structures, variation, contradictions, inconsistencies and ambivalences' (Hearn, 1993:150). Underlying these discourses are the perceptions of the airline managers and the pilots. In an organisational or professional setting genderrelated perceptions held by people are significant, based on the assumption that these perceptions are influential in determining behaviour (Rollinson, Broadfield and Edwards, 1998:123). Perceptions influence and underpin the professional culture of the pilots and the aviation industry. As masculinity is the dominant perception within the industry, female pilots are faced with a confronting perception that is often unarticulated but acted out through associated behaviours. In particular, 'sex-role stereotyping is pervasive' (Nicholson, 1996:13) and often women are first identified by sex and then by their professional role (Sitler, Turney and Wulle, 1996:333). …

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