Image: Bernie Proctor
As International Women’s Day was celebrated on March 8th, a number of events took place around the world to celebrate women in aviation. From conventions to baton relays, all manner of functions were organised to raise the profile of women in what is still a male-dominated domain. There have been breakthrough individuals from the high profile Amelia Earhart to the lesser known first female astronaut, Valentina Tereshkova, who took to the skies in 1963. Along the way there have been a good many other achievements by our mothers, wives and sisters, but the numbers are still small by comparison.
The thought of women in aviation had never been a particular focus for me. I had taught women to fly, flown with female Captains as a First Officer and even married a female pilot. I won’t say that I was gender-blind, but it seemed perfectly fair and natural that women should fly; they were certainly just as capable as their male counterparts. Unfortunately, not everyone necessarily shares that perception. It is not through any malice, but pilot and female just don’t line up in their pre-programmed brain. As the father of three daughters, I could see that this was not ideal.
My upbringing was standard for a child of the times. My Dad went to work and my Mum stayed at home and raised the family. She volunteered at church fetes and worked in the school library one day each week, but that was it. However, my perceptions were never steered in any particular gender-driven direction. For behind my mother’s traditional role was a sharp brain and a background anchored in aviation.
My mother had served with the air force during World War Two and had been recruited into a specialist branch as a radar operator. These were the very early days of radar and her training and skills were kept secret, earning them the nickname, the ‘Hush Hush’ girls. Even so, at the war’s end her skills were no longer required as the air force disbanded their female branch. A few years later their absence was duly noted and women were invited to enlist once more. My mother was on the first course of new recruits.
It was here that she met my father, a fighter pilot on his way to the Korean War. When he returned from serving overseas they were married and once again, my mother was forced to leave the air force as women were not allowed to be married at that time and still serve. They went on to raise three children and we grew up in an environment rich in aviation. I have always counted myself very lucky for knowing what I wanted to do with my life from a very early age.
Fast forward about forty years and I meet the girl of my dreams. As fate would have it, she was also a pilot. She gained employment with a major airline in the mid-1990s and yet she was still only about the twentieth female on the seniority list at the time. Those numbers have continued to grow over the last twenty years, but there is still a degree of fascination and curiosity by people when her voice comes over the public address system on board.
For women there are still particularly difficult choices down the road as life's journey continues. Managing marriage and motherhood in a job ruled by rosters is not easy - but it's not impossible. Rather than an issue confined to aviation, the majority of working women will admit that the balance of family and work is one of their greatest challenges. With four children my wife somehow manages the delicate balance with a level of skill and finesse that I just don't possess.
Rather than legislative barriers now existing for women in aviation as they did in my mother’s time, it seems to be more a case of increasing awareness. There are tremendous female role models in all branches of aviation and aerospace and we have to make them known to our daughters. Given the option, they may not want to fly, but the option should still be presented just as boldly as any career choice to their young, enthusiastic hearts. Only then will the sky cease to be the limit and become their office.
Image: Paul Sadler (Australian Aviation)