How many women in “the Airman Database”?

Browsing through a newspaper, one would occasionally find headlines such as: “Passenger refuses to fly with female pilot” or “Passenger booted off plane for complaining that captain was a woman.” Notable cases occurred in Belgium in 1991in India in 2011, and most recently in Brazil. The source of the disruption isn’t always a male passenger: in 2013, a woman refused to board a Miami to New York commercial flight because the pilot was a black woman.

So who will fly your plane when you travel this summer?

To answer this question, we’ve looked at “The Airman Database” – an open database maintained by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that collects information about airline pilots worldwide –  and we’ve processed one million records, using RapidMiner, a special data mining tool. Combined with an extension from NamSor, this tool can extract and identify the gender of any international name with high accuracy. It can recognize, for example, that Andrea Rossini and Andrea Parker are likely to be respectively male and female names.

“The Airman Database”, irrespectively of its title, includes a good number of women. But there is still a long way to parity: women account for approximately 5.44% of airline commercial pilots globally.

In the USA, about 5.12% of airline or commercial pilots are women. A low figure confirmed by other sources: “the U.S. Department of Labor reports that only 4.3% of the [US] population that reports making a living as a pilot or flight engineer is female”  wrote Mireille Goyer, Founder of Women Of Aviation Worldwide Week.

The gender gap varies by region: it’s even wider in Mexico (only 2.33% women) and narrower in France (7.62%), Sweden (8.20%) or Finland (12.07%).

But the real positive outlook comes from the younger generation: in the USA, women account for  12.02% of pilot students, so the upward trend should remain strong.

Ms. Christine Debouzy is the treasurer of French Women Pilot Association (AFFP) and a pilot on Airbus A380, the world’s largest commercial aircraft flying today. Last year, Ms. Debouzy flew with the largest female crew on a Paris-Washington trip on the occasion of the International Women’s Day.

Earlier in her career, Ms. Debouzy was one of the first commercial airline female  pilots to become pregnant. This fact raised some issues: can a pregnant woman pilot an airplane? Could she temporarily work on the ground, with engineers? Ultimately, many rules and regulations had to be adjusted in France in order to make the profession more inclusive to women.

Ms. Debouzy said:

“In periods of economic crisis or safety crisis, we need to remain watchful that the trend doesn’t go backward. Now in Europe, there no real barrier today preventing women to become a pilot. There is still a mental restraint, a lack of knowledge that the possibility exists. Also, we need more women executives and instructors, to whom girls can look up to for inspiration.”

Where’s the ceiling? the sky is open to women.

Women have been an integral part of the history of the conquest of the sky: for example in France, the first club of women aeronauts – called “La Stella” – was opened in 1909. Among its members was Marie Marvingt, who disguised herself as a man to fight in WWI and in 1915 became the first woman to fly combat missions. She survived the war and devoted her life to promote the concept of air ambulances.

But as we celebrate one hundred years of commercial aviation, which has grown exponentially after WWII, we can reflect on the stereotype which has grown with it: male pilots and female attendants.

(Right: Marie Marvingt in 1912 on a Deperdussin airplane)

Mrs. Patricia Haffner  was the first woman to be trained at the prestigious French university for pilots Ecole Nationale de l’Aviation Civile (ENAC) and she is also the first woman captain on Airbus A380.

Mrs. Haffner recalls the early days of her career:

“Some men would object that a woman can’t make a career in piloting, because of motherhood and domestic activities. But what about air hostesses: didn’t they have the same constraints?”

An objection proven wrong by her own successful career and also by Air France company statistics: the share of women pilots has grown from 0.1% in 1980 to 2.1% in 1996 and 7.2% in 2013.

About the reaction of passengers:

“I’ve never had any passenger refusing to board my plane, though I remember someone joking about it. Passengers are surprised – even today. Women passengers are often positively surprised, delighted and proud.”

About GenderGapGrader

GenderGapGrader’s mission is to measure the gender gap across all professional fields. We publish gender gap estimates at the finest grain level, using whatever reference database we can identify for a particular industry: The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) for the film industry, The Airman Database for pilots… and more to come.

We do our best to continuously improve the tools and methodology. That said, the precision of predicting gender from personal names varies per country/culture; moreover, the coverage of a ’reference database’ may not be 100% global (IMDB may not cover 100% of Indian films etc).

There were less than 1% Japanese women pilots in 2009. Our estimate of 5.6% female pilots in Japan today seems overtly optimistic… NamSor precision to predict the gender of Japanese names is generally ~95% accurate, but is “The Airman Directory” a representative dataset for Japan or are there unexpected biases? We couldn’t find any statistics on female pilots in Japan for comparison.

We kindly suggest the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the global trade association for the airline industry, to disclose gender gap statistics based on actual figures consolidated from its 240 member airlines.

In the meantime, we encourage you, dear reader, to contribute to the wiki if you can find an alternative and reliable piece of statistics. You can do your own analysis too: we’ve disclosed the full data used in this study;  we’ve opened GendRE API which extracts gender from names; and to make it usable by everyone, we’ve built an extension for RapidMiner, a leading open source data mining and predictive analytics software.

So you can run your own gender gap analysis, where and when it matters to you!

Elian Carsenat & Elena Rossini

©  2014 gendergapgrader.com