Women in Aviation – The Lack of Representation For Female Pilots And How The BWPA Is Combatting This In 2023

Historically, there have always been significant differences in the roles between men and women. Due to these differences and how society has formed, women have had to face more backlash in comparison to men when it comes to pursuing careers and hobbies that are stereotypically ‘male’. However, times are changing, and women, in a multitude of different ways, have proven time and time again that whatever a man can do, a woman can do as well.

Why, In 2023, Are We Still Seeing Such An Under-Representation Of Women In Aviation?

Despite the societal changes and developments over the years, the aviation sector can be a career choice that some women still find inaccessible. In 2023, despite female representation growing slightly, there remains a considerable gap in the market between males and females, not only for piloting but for all areas of aviation, such as aerospace engineering and more. Those who are regular commercial flyers will already know that it is a rarity to have a female on the flight deck; in fact, most people have never had one.

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Graph depicting the global differences between male and female pilots. Data was gathered from a study carried out by Pilot Institute.
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Graph depicting the growth of female pilots from 2018 to 2022. Data was gathered from a study carried out by Pilot Institute.

The British Women Pilots’ Association

The British Women Pilots’ Association, or BWPA, is the largest and longest-established organisation of women pilots in the UK. It is one of several vital organisations striving to promote aviation and flying as an accessible career choice for women. The organisation is run entirely by volunteers, meaning their hard work is not-for-profit.

It’s not only commercial flying that they seek to promote; the BWPA encourages interested women to exercise all of their options. This could include recreational flying, air traffic control, instructing, and engineering – across all types of different aircraft.

Here at Travel Radar, we were lucky enough to have the chance to interview the Deputy Chair of the organisation, Annabel Cook.

Lady wearing black headphones and a white polo shirt with the emblem British Women Pilot's Association written on the front, taking a selfie from the inside of a plane. Sea and sky in the background.
Deputy Chair of the British Women Pilots’ Association, Annabel Cook, in the cockpit of a PA28, flying along the south coast of England. © Annabel Cook

Annabel started her flying journey in her early twenties when she bought herself a trial flight for her 22nd birthday at Cranfield Airport. Since gaining her Private Pilot Licence (PPL) in 2001, where she flew both C152s and PA28s at Coventry Airport, she has flown a wide variety of aircraft, her favourites of which were the de Havilland Chipmunk, in which she undertook her tailwheel differences training, Aircoupe and a TFP-51 Mustang, a bucket list favourite of hers of which she documented the entire process of her flying.

Small yellow aircoupe aeroplane with woman with dark hair and smiling sitting inside
Annabel Cook, having just flown one of her favourite aircraft, the Aircoupe © Michael Peare

The experience of being a woman in aviation is vastly different from a man’s.

Annabel herself shared with us her personal experience of this and how her dream of flying nearly came to an abrupt end before it even started. After arriving at the airport for her first lesson towards her PPL at age 23, she was greeted by several older men whom she distinctly remembers, one saying, “You all right, love? Here with your boyfriend?”

Although the interaction seems innocent, it connotates an internalised misogyny that many women who work within the aviation, and other male-dominated industries, have to face daily.

As a young girl learning to fly for the first time, this could have had a knock-on effect on Annabel. It was only thanks to a very supportive male instructor that she stayed for that first lesson and completed her PPL, which changed the trajectory of her life.

This is why the BWPA is such an important organisation. As the Deputy Chair, Annabel has made it her mission to help further the organisation’s goals of supporting all women in aviation. However, they don’t only promote aviation as an attractive career choice for women. Despite being not-for-profit, the BWPA acts as an adviser to aid these women along their entire journey, all the way from the promotion of practical schemes and scholarships to getting their first licence and becoming pilots.

In addition, the BWPA offers its scholarships – a special programme designed to aid women of all ages and backgrounds on their flying journeys. This scheme has seen overwhelming success in recent years, with only seven awarded back in 2019 compared to 23 in 2022. With such a boost in popularity, the BWPA has committed itself to running the programme even more strategically in 2023. This year, the scholarships opened on the 5th of September. Click here to find out more.

Meet Some Of The Team

The BWPA is a diverse and inclusive organisation that welcomes both men and women of all backgrounds to become a part of the team. Below are just a few of some of the key members.

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Allie Dunnington – GAAC (General Aviation Awareness Council) Representative/South West Regional Representative. © BWPA
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Matt Winwood, teaching in the old Flybe Dash 8 simulator. © BWPA
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Maya Komolafe, who in 2022 won a BWPA Easy PPL Ground School Scholarship. © BWPA

The History Of Women In Aviation – Why Was The BWPA Created?

The BWPA was formed back in 1955, ten years after the events of World War II. After speaking with Annabel, we learned that the war played a huge role in the association’s existence. The Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) was a civilian service introduced with missions to aid in the war. They did this by flying and delivering military aircraft to and from different factories and the squadrons, working closely with the Royal Air Force (RAF) to transport the goods. Furthermore, they would also fly personnel and mail and essentials such as medical supplies.

The organisation was short of men because many were fighting on the front lines, so the ATA allowed some women to pilot the aircraft. Annabel said,

“Women made a huge impact within the Air Transport Auxiliary, and the amount of work that they did isn’t widely known. You hear stories about women from the ATA delivering aircraft and experiencing the same attitude that I sometimes do decades later – ‘Where’s the pilot?’ It’s me!”

Black and white image of five female pilots that piloted aircraft in the Air Transport Auxiliary during World War Two in 1943
Five female ATA pilots in 1943. From left to right, Lettice Curtis, Jenny Broad, Audrey Sale-Barker, Gabrielle Patterson, and Pauline Gower © Combat Engineering Board

The ATA was a massive development for women involved in aviation; one of the most notable features of the organisation was that, in 1943, women started receiving the same pay as men of equal rank. However, it was short-lived, and after the war, women were expected to return to their familiar societal roles.

This is why the BWPA was founded to start advocating for female pilots, giving a voice to women who loved to fly.

So, Why Is There Still A Gender Split Of Such Magnitude?

There are multiple reasons why this gender split in aviation is still occurring in 2023. Listed below are just some of the main reasons as to why.

  • Lack of exposure – Women are generally not exposed enough to the opportunities in aviation careers and, therefore, don’t pursue them.
  • Expense – Though this is a rather generic struggle amongst both men and women in the industry, socially, there is a wider acceptance and encouragement for men to spend their money pursuing such a career. On the other hand, more judgment is involved for women, and it can be harder to justify spending a significant amount of money on something such as flying.
  • Lack of education – For those aiming to work as commercial pilots, in general, there is a lack of government grants and funding available for new flyers. Though there used to be apprenticeship schemes that commercial airlines had put into place, these are now a lot rarer. This is an issue for both men and women; however, the lack of information and encouragement for women to join aviation roles can make it more difficult for them to get involved.
  • Masculine presence – Due to the sector being so male-dominated, there is a certain level of camaraderie and banter, more typically onboard commercial aircraft, as this is where there is more of a need to create and build long-lasting friendships and companionship with coworkers and copilots. For those women who might be a bit shyer, it can feel daunting to be thrust into such a masculine environment.
  • Maternity leave and pregnancy – There isn’t much structure for women in aviation who want to start a family. This is not only due to the lack of female pilots, which naturally opens this issue up as a grey area but also medical reasons. Women cannot fly past a certain point in their pregnancies due to the risks involved, so they must take career breaks. This can be detrimental to the confidence of female pilots as the nature of aviation is to be current. It can take women a while to adjust and get back up to speed. Furthermore, there can be a lack of flexibility for women who have had children upon their return to work.
Large group of people who are apart of the British Women Pilot's Association, standing in front of an aircraft.
Members of the BWPA and the Federation of European Women Pilots at the Shuttleworth Collection © BWPA

The Bottom Line

The BWPA is an essential part of the aviation sector. It acts as a support system for women interested in aviation roles, allowing them to meet and exchange valuable knowledge and share each other’s experiences of what it means to be a woman in aviation. In this place, they can come together and support each other.

So, suppose you’re a woman interested in pursuing an aviation career or want to learn how to fly recreationally, or you’re a man keen to actively support women in aviation. In that case, the British Women Pilots’ Association is a wonderful community that will welcome you with open arms. You can learn more about the organisation here, and if you want to learn more about what sort of upcoming events they have planned, click here to find out more.

What do you think about the gender split in aviation? Let us know in the comments below!

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Millie Brown
Millie Brown
Millie is a recent English Literature graduate with a passion for reading, writing and travel. She is currently working as a Journalist Intern at Travel Radar to further her writing skills and gain some hands-on, journalist experience. In the future, she plans on going backpacking around the world with her partner whilst also working on becoming a freelance writer and journalist.
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