In last week’s ConHome column, I wrote about the gender pay gap and used airlines as an example. A reader emailed me afterwards and I thought his email might be interesting for people to read…

On April 6th, in regard to the gender pay gap - specifically airlines - on your regular column on ConservativeHome you wrote,

“…airlines complain that they have a big gap because most of their employees are cabin crew, of which 70 per cent are women, and much lower paid than pilots, only three per cent of whom are women. Perhaps they ought to ask themselves why only three per cent are female, and then do something about it. There’s no intrinsic reason for women to shun the opportunity to train as pilots.”

I feel, as an airline pilot of 15 years, there are intrinsic reasons. As you have commented on the subject, I wish to provide you with more information on my line of work, having flown for both of the top two worst offenders in the airline gender pay averages.

1) It is my position that there is no reason why, if a woman pilot does no take a long time off for any reason and performs to the standards required by the airline, she could not reach the same rank and pay as her male peers. However, women may not wish to become pilots when they research the job, which is their choice to make. Factors that women may wish to consider are as follows;

2) Flying isn’t a particularly good choice if you want a stable lifestyle. It involves highly irregular shift work, extreme early or late starts/finishes, very long (10~12 hour) days cut off from everyone but the person sitting next to you. If more women want to do this line of work that is fantastic, but it really isn’t for everyone, especially if you prefer having a social life and are thinking of having children at some point. I’m not sure how many people go into a job thinking about the long term, but training to be a commercial pilot is a huge commitment, both in terms of time and money. It takes around 18 months to become a pilot and costs the better part of £100,000, with no guarantees of success. In my current airline, a pilot (who by coincidence happens to be female), hit tail first on landing and was let go. She was only just out of training. Try having that incident on your record and looking for a decent job. I may have disagreements over my company’s handling of this, but I raise it to highlight the risk that these trainees are taking on. It is not a free ride - you have to be committed to the career. That means recruits often come in knowing the long term implications and have accepted the risk, (something I’ll come back to later). Most female pilots I have met (they do exist) have had fathers who were also pilots and have accepted the nature of the job; however their careers may not progress as far as a male’s due to the next reason, pregnancy;

2) This is possibly the biggest factor why there will always be a pay disparity between men and women pilots. A pilot who is pregnant cannot medically subject her body to the repeated pressure changes (0-8000-0 ft cabin altitude every sector), the increased cosmic radiation levels at high altitude (which are monitored by the company), and the lower oxygen and humidity levels in the aircraft, possible time-zone transits (fatigue), not to mention the air pumped in from the engine compressors which may contain harmful pollutants (this is still being investigated); to do so would be dangerous for her unborn child. That being so, most airlines find other work for their pregnant pilots, often as gate staff or at check-in, but at reduced pay, which leads to the next associated reason why there will always be an average pay differential between male and female pilots;

3) Commercial airline promotions are based on either seniority, or hours flown, or a mixture of both. While a pregnant pilot is stood down from flying duties, her placement and experience is frozen, which means other pilots - the majority of whom are men - will overtake her for promotion. Unlike most other jobs, in aviation there are few promotional steps and a large pay differential between those steps. For example, in Ryanair, the top offender, there are basically two positions for pilots - First Officer (c. £30,000 rising to £55,000pa), and Captain (c. £100,000 ~ £150,000pa). Someone taking time out from flying, of whatever gender and for whatever reason, will lose the experience needed to apply for captaincy. Once the captain positions are filled there is usually a long wait until another opens, fast expanding airlines being the exception to the norm. Obviously, this affects the career of a pilot who becomes pregnant. I sometimes fly with a female FO who, now having had a child, has decided to take a part-time contract (which makes sense as her husband, who is a Captain, earns more). This means she is on far lower pay, and will build less experience which will further impede her career progression. This is their choice - but a wholly rational one, which is also made by many other female pilots in the same circumstance.

4) Your article regarded getting more women into flying to begin with - may I remind you of the case of James Damore, the Google Software Engineer who was sacked after he proposed more ways of getting women into software engineering and was lambasted by both his company, his colleagues and the media for suggesting men and women often want, and are interested in, different things as a by-product of biology. While on average there is plenty of overlap between men and women, at the extremes there are obvious differences. Flying an airliner is no exception to that. The job is extreme in many ways, and it is a testament to the industry that we make it look as easy as it is (cock-ups at Eurocontrol and baggage handling accepted). Women would be wise to look at the long term implications of losing a social life that they might enjoy outside of work (this goes for men too, but on average we are less sociable creatures - especially in aviation), and the implications of raising a family with the possibility of slipping on the career ladder, which are pronounced in commercial aviation.

5) Plenty of women also fly as cabin crew - so why not pilots? As above, the barriers to entry are high. It takes a lot of commitment and once committed you have to be prepared to sacrifice the career progression for family as a female (less so as a male). Cabin crew take around 2 months to train and the cost, if borne by the individual is anywhere between £1000 and £7000 (no guesses for who charges their crew that last one). Cabin crew also have time out if they become pregnant, but as they are less committed (in general) to staying with the career, they will, in my experience, often take large time-outs to do other similarly paid work that is more suited to raising a family before returning to flying once their children are better able to look after themselves. A pilot, who has constant (and costly) evaluations in the simulator to keep their licence valid, cannot easily do this.

6) Should a woman avoid a well-paid job knowing it has social and familial downsides, and accept a less paid job that avoids these instead? I would say this comes down to the individual, doesn’t it? On top of the social engineering we are already engaging in with these virtue-signalling devices, should we be taking a line that women - or people in general - get into jobs that might not fit them, just for the money? Does having a family and having the time to care for that family mean less than shoe-horning women into roles they might decide aren’t for them?

7) Men, in general (and presumably by nature), are less risk averse. Perhaps another reason why, given the above disincentives to become a pilot, men flock to it while women do not. Even once doing the job, it is still sometimes inherently risky, even though the industry has made great strides to increase safety. Based solely on the few women I have flown with, both Captains and First Officers, empirically I would say women are far more conservative (flying-wise) than men. Often that is a good thing, but in commercial aviation margins mean everything - you can’t be too conservative, but nor can you feel too deficient in your role. Again, from my experience of flying with only six females, I have had two of them hand over control to me (once at the very last second) because they did not feel adequately skilled to perform the landing, compared to zero instances in flying with many, many more males. That isn’t to say those ladies weren’t actually skilled enough - just that they felt they weren’t. If there are not gender differences in risk aversion, then I don’t know quite why this disparity would exist.

I hope this provides more information to you as to why it may not be as simple as promoting the job to women and hoping they come to it. I think it is a fantastic career, even given its downsides, and there is plenty of scope for more women to do it. However, I feel this is less about my industry (which is welcoming to all) and more about the way women see their ability to do these roles in the first place. It seems to be more indentured with psychology (to which I am not qualified to advise) than simply throwing money at the problem or trying to engage in a positively-discriminatory practise, which could negatively affect the industry. Why are there not more female engineers, racing drivers, sailors, oil-rig operators etc, all of which are very well paid? I really don’t think it is up to the industry to tell women they should do it. The question should be, if they know they can do it - why aren’t they?

Kind regards, (Captain at a fantastic, non-discriminatory, UK airline).