Pilot Felicity Brown flies tourists over the Nullarbor for a living.

Key points:

  • Women make up around 10 per cent of Australia’s commercial pilot cohort
  • Female pilots have joined the industry more significantly in the past 10 years
  • Male pilots are set to be called back earlier than female ones after the pandemic

It is a spectacular office, but the view is not the only novelty for some of her passengers.

“About once a week somebody will say ‘oh, it’s a female pilot’ or ‘oh, we’ve got a lady pilot’,” Ms Brown said.

Women pilots are still few and far between in the airline business.

University of Southern Queensland aviation lecturer and former pilot Natasha Heap said there was a steep gender imbalance both globally and in Australia.

“The International Civil Aviation Organisation recently published statistics saying that 5 per cent of the commercial pilots globally are women, but that really is regional dependent,” Ms Heap said.

“Within Australia, I believe the figure sits more around 10 per cent.

“The region with the highest number of female pilots is actually India and they’re sitting at around 20 per cent.”

Natasha Heap is a retired pilot and aviation expert with the University of Southern Queensland.(Supplied)

‘Last ones called back’

The pandemic has led to many of Australia’s pilots being stood down, but experts are worried the pandemic’s impact will set back the hopes of addressing gender imbalance in the airline industry.

While genuine efforts have been made in the past decade to recruit more women, Ms Heap said their relatively recent entry to the industry may cost them.

“With all these pilots worldwide stood down, they will eventually be called back to the line — and called back to flying in order of seniority — and it’ll be the senior members of the list that get called back first.

“Just from a function of when women joined the business and how many women pilots have joined in the last five to 10 years, there’s probably going to be a higher proportion of women who aren’t called back sooner — they’ll be the last ones called back.”

More women doing pilot training

Ms Heap said she never felt any discrimination from within the industry in her flying days.

“The hardest time I’ve had was from the passengers; I’ve had passengers refused to fly with me because I was a woman,” she said.

Natasha Heap training another pilot at the University of Southern Queensland.(Supplied: University of Southern Queensland)

The academic now teaches upcoming pilots.

She said she had seen a 10 per cent increase in women enrolling in her classes over two years, despite the pandemic.

She would like to see that trend continue.

“We need to normalise it,” she said.

“We need to educate the public and people that flying is a career open to women and it’s fantastic.

“Until we let every woman and girl know around the world that it’s a viable option for them, and let the public know that it’s quite normal, there is going to be this gender divide within the numbers in aviation.”