The Unrecognized Contributions of Women in the Federal Aviation Administration

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The Underestimated Contributions of Women in Aviation History

Private Industry behind, but getting better

Sec. Dole and Adm. Engen improved FAA process

Current FAA Senior Executives better than industry in %s

To commemorate the IWD, the International Women’s Day, Skycop decided to look into the history of women in aviation.




“It’s a boys’ club” might cross your mind when you think of aviation. Probably an image of a charming pilot with a gorgeous stewardess on his arm pops into your head from the thousands of ads, movies and stories you’ve seen before. But the times have changed and the gender role biases have been busted years ago – women can do anything that men can. So why is it so hard to acknowledge women who fought their way to work in aviation?




From the very first steps of aviation, women were always there. From Katherine Wright, who helped her brothers change the history of aviation by finding them teachers, funding their work and supporting throughout their journey, to Raymonde de Laroche, who became the world’s first licensed female pilot on March 8, 1910, to Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932. And while the latter one is thought to be one of the most loved figures of aviation history, many women stay forgotten.

Aviation was never easy for women. In the late 1920s flying was considered dangerous, so many aircraft manufacturers hired women as sales representatives and flight demonstrators. Why? Well, their reasoning was that if a woman could fly an airplane, it really could not be that difficult or dangerous. Later women were thought to be worse pilots and people were afraid to fly planes, piloted by females. The public image of a woman was focused on being a mother, so women were seen as perfect for a stewardess job that, at the time, was mostly focused on being pretty, young and pleasant – just like a housewife. Times changed and with that the perception of women who, with the help of the feminist movement, showed to the world that they can be as good at male dominated fields, as the men themselves. But even though the stereotypes were shaken years ago, women still have a difficult time in the aviation industry.

Apart of flight attendants, women still make a significantly smaller part of employees in all other fields of aviation – from higher management, to pilots, to engineers. The International Air Transport Association shared, that only 3 percent of CEOs in aviation are women, compared to 12 percent in other industries. According to International Society of Women Airline Pilots data, published on 20thof February, 2019, only 5.59% corporate pilots are women. And while, as reported by the FAA’s Aeronautical Center, in 2017 there were over 670k non-pilot aviation related employees, only 29% of them were women. But if we exclude flight attendant profession, this number drops to a shocking 4%. Why are the stats so low?

Well, it all starts with gender norms. While boys are encouraged to play with cars, planes and robots, girls are thought to show more interest in dolls, fluffy animals and paying house. Most of gender targeted toys focus on beauty and care for girls and intelligence and strength for boys. Both at home and in school girls are not encouraged to focus on logic or technology heavy engineering specialties and that’s the first obstacle that needs to be overcome. Parents and teachers should provide options for girls to choose from that include both soft skill and science focused specialties and encourage their choice. The more girls show interest in scientific and technical specialties, the more women will come to work in the aviation field.

Another obstacle that is still a looming dark cloud above professional women’s heads is the public perception. Even though so much has already been done, we’re not yet at a stage where women are seen as equal in the aviation field. On June 2018, during a conference following an IATA meeting, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker said a woman couldn’t do his job. The CEO said, that of course it has to be led by a man, because it is a very challenging position and was met with groans of disapproval. Later he tried to justify his comment, saying he was only taking about one man’s position, but the damage was already done. Remarks like that show the attitude of higher management towards women – they are just not enough.

And lastly, sexism in management is still an issue. The survey, conducted in early 2018 by LeanIn.Org, found that almost half of male managers are uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone, or socializing together and almost 30% of male managers are uncomfortable working alone with a woman. What does that mean? Well, now it’s even harder for women to gain needed experience and mentorship that would help them in their career paths.

Women still have a hard time making their careers in aviation, but we can already see a positive trend. Aviation companies create more and more programs to attract women to work in positions that years ago were thought to be fitting for men only. It is great to see that aviation has finally realized that intellectual value is independent of gender.



While the folks at SkyCop consulted with the FAA to determine the number of women who are in non-pilot aviation positions, they did not ask how the FAA fares on gender equity. The agency’s EEO plan provides the numbers for the FAA workforce, the following ethnic/female groups lower than the expected the Civilian Labor Force (CLF) participation rates:

Hispanic females (On-Board: 1.58%, CLF: 4.52%, Net Change: 6.83%),

White females (On-Board: 17.42%, CLF: 33.74%, Net Change: 2.25%),

Black females (On-Board: 4.36%, CLF: 5.66%, Net Change: 4.27%),

Asian females (On-Board: 0.89%, CLF: 1.71%, Net Change: 6.68%)[1].

While the improvements in percentages are encouraging, the numbers are below the CLF but generally better than the private airline numbers.

In 1984 Secretary Dole called Administrator Engen to her office and pointed out that she (her staff) had noted that the Senior Executive Service positions, which the DOT reviewed, was deficient in women and minorities[2].  The Administrator returned to his office and asked his Deputy to find out how to correct this imbalance. Larry Covington, the FAA’s expert on executive positions, explained in words similar to the following:

Recruitment of women at the FAA brought considerable talent in the positions associated with professional education—lawyers, economists, HR specialists, accountants, financial analysts and the like. The agency’s high level jobs, especially the SES positions, were concentrated in air traffic and flight standards. Qualifications for those openings required experience in the relevant discipline; obviously, the women candidates were being excluded.

When asked how to create opportunities for the prized SES jobs in Air Traffic and Aviation Safety, Covington suggested that we institute an informal rotation plan. It would contribute to breaking down the “silos” which were growing among the organizations and would create the requisite experience for those within the program to be eligible for the SES jobs.

Today’s FAA organization chart, gender unidentified, is filled with graduates of that program. The positive reaction to bringing the “professionally educated” individuals into the AT and AVS teams actually paved the way for more.

Here is an analysis of the genders of the people who hold the top 21 jobs within the FAA—career and political positions, females and males:

The FAA has benefited from two very talented Women Administrators and both (as well as the fellow male heads of the FAA) reinforced the importance of diversity :

Both, after their FAA service have succeeded; Ms. Blakey was CEO of Aerospace Industries Association and then Rolls Royce, NA. The first woman FAA Administrator continued to be a trailblazer, most recently:

United taps FAA trailblazer as airline’s first female board chairman

Garvey, 74, will be the first woman to chair the Chicago-based airline’s board. United announced her appointment Thursday in a note to employees.

Garvey, who has served on United’s board since 2009, replaces the airline’s outgoing chairman, Robert Milton. Munoz’s employment agreement had specified that he would become chairman this year, but after a passenger was dragged off a United Express flight at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in April 2017, the airline’s board said it believed the CEO and chairman roles should be separate.

Garvey is the North America chairman of Meridian, a development and investment firm, who previously led the U.S. public-private partnerships advisory group at JPMorgan Chase.

One of the graduated of the Larry Covington program continued up the executive FAA ladder to become one of the most innovative and respected leaders of Aviation Safety.

Margaret Gilligan Retires From FAA Having Laid Sound Foundations For A Proactive, Consistent & Dynamic Safety Culture

Elizabeth Wright may appreciate that the two FAA headquarters buildings are named for her famous brothers and she may also appreciate the agency’s efforts to fully include women in that organization.



[1] These numbers were published in 2009.

[2] This observation was applicable to a lesser degree to people of color, but this discussion focuses on women.

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4 Comments on "The Unrecognized Contributions of Women in the Federal Aviation Administration"

  1. JE Murdock III | March 11, 2019 at 9:58 am | Reply

    some parallel observations–

  2. Thomas Doyle | March 11, 2019 at 1:24 pm | Reply

    I never see any mention of the American Indians contribution to America. And aviation.

  3. JE Murdock III | March 11, 2019 at 1:35 pm | Reply

    Good point, Mr. Doyle, but the premise of the post was the International Women’s Day. If you have an article on Native Americans” contributions to aviation, we might publish it.

  4. Didn’t we have a veteran of the WW II Wasp’s running the mail room years back? She sort of ran the tenth floor as I recall.

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