Hi Gabbi, I, too, am a “girl” (well, maybe slightly older) from a New England town. I’m also one of the first women airline pilots, hired in 1978 and retired, by law, in 2014. I was most definitely “treated like crap.” It changed my life. Despite my best efforts, it changed who I am inside and how I view the world. I expected it from my peers. What I guess I didn’t expect was to be mistreated by management–the men with the power to affect my career. Their bias cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars and much career advancement.
To try to make sense of it all, I worked, for a few years, in the training department for a company psychologist, as a CRM developer. Because my boss was a psychologist, all types of traumatized employees would come to talk, so I have some idea of the “big picture.” It’s a harsh world. Not only women are mistreated, but it’s particularly hard on women because, if–even through no fault of your own–you fall into a bad situation, if you’re “one of the guys,” the union is likely to help you. If you’re “different,” they’re not so likely to help you.
As part of my work, I developed a training program that included what was initially called “gender bias” training–mandated because the airline had violated anti-discrimination laws. There were a couple of woman on the committee for which I worked. They refused to believe that women were being harassed – they were the other side of the story. One was the daughter of a pilot who’d flown for the airline. Another had a friend in management. I, and many other women, had none of those advantages. One of the first women military pilots, I was told, quit the job, because in her experience, harassment at the airline was much worse than even in the military.
What that says is: a lot of what you encounter is a matter of sheer luck and individual circumstances. For a while, I had a flight manager who was on my side, and that made all the difference. My next flight manager was a pilot who “scabbed” (worked) during a strike. I never again had a manager who did anything to help, so life became difficult.
My complaints are much more with management than with line pilots, because they have the power to harm.
As for line pilots, I’ve flown with great guys, and I’ve flown 15 hour trips with pilots who’ve refused to speak a non-operational word. My first captain in NY refused to fly with me. I was the first woman pilot he’d encountered. His manager sent him back to the plane. By the end of the three day trip, he said he’d never had such a great trip. He confessed,“I thought you’d be like my wife.” That said a lot to me. I was rarely treated like “one of the guys” but most of the line pilots would be reasonably friendly if I persisted.
I’ve talked to women doctors. They have a tough time, but I think it’s worse in aviation. And you’re in the middle, between the pilots and the flight attendants. Some F/As root for you. Some are jealous. Some women F/As don’t like you because you’re taking up the space of a pilot whom they might marry.
You run into all kinds of things. One pilot farted all the way to London, just to see if he could make me upset. The only person who actually did ever refuse to fly with me, however, was an old woman. I guess she figured, if she couldn’t do it, then I couldn’t either.
All of that being said, if I had to do it all over again, I probably would choose another career, not because of the gender issues but because of the way it ended up – our pensions were terminated. I lost millions of dollars, as did most of my peers. Our pay was cut in half and benefits decimated. I think that I couldn’t contributed more to the world in another occupation.
On the other hand, maybe I would do it again. Now that I’ve been forced, by the age limit, to retired, I find it very difficult to stay on the ground. As they say, the “world was my oyster”–traveling to exotic cities, seeing amazing things, flying regularly over the North Pole, having lunch under the Eiffel Tower. Unless maybe you’re an international exec, there aren’t many careers that can give you that. And, I guess, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. I find that, because of the mistreatment, I’m more negative than I used to be, but I guess, in some way, I’m also more understanding of people and situations. I don’t know. I wish I’d never had to see the dark sides of so many people, but then again, I don’t live with a lot of illusions about what people are like. That, I think, is a good thing.
And I’m proud of my career, because I know what it’s taken to survive. A woman just starting an airline career today will have a different road. Easier, I hope. But not without adversity. The worst thing I can say is that, over time, things didn’t change all that much. Some people are great. Others are just “bad apples” when it comes to accepting those who are “different.”
My advice: don’t have tunnel vision. Look around at all the career possibilities. Give everything a fair evaluation. Then if flying is what you really think you want to do, go for it. And if you go for it, go for the best. Don’t settle for second best. If you believe you can do it, you’re half way there. No matter what anyone says, good or bad, believe in yourself. That’s what I’ve learned more than anything: I know who I am. It hurts when someone mistreats me, but mistreating someone – that’s their problem. Not mine. You really learn to depend on yourself and believe in yourself.
Another piece of advice: I have a lot of degrees in other fields and other work experience. A pilot should always have at least one other career prospect. I spent a lot of years laid off. I once lost my medical for several years. Depending only on flying is not a wise thing. But if you love it, go for it and enjoy the trip! Best of luck in whatever you do.