I sometimes wonder when watching some visually creative and arresting commercial on TV just what product is being advertised. So with the current offering by Virgin Atlantic. A parade of colourful and distinctive characters pass before our eyes as they move within an airport setting to the accompaniment of assertive music which enjoins us to 'see the world differently'.
A man in a silver lamé jacket speeds along in a wheelchair; a woman in the bright red Virgin Atlantic uniform decides she will not wear lipstick; a couple exchange appraising glances causing one to trip as she comes off the moving walkway; a youngster in leather and studs pulls a face down the aisle; a middle aged woman relaxes in her seat with cocktail glass to hand; a young man, clearly cabin staff, flutters his heavily mascara laden eyelashes under sparkling, shocking pink eyeshadow. I am what I am
say the lyrics.
What is it all about? A quick internet search enlightens me – it is an illustration of Virgin Atlantic Airlines new gender identity policy. This allows cabin crew, ground crew and pilots to choose any of the iconic Vivienne Westwood designed uniforms which best represents them. So, for example, male cabin crew members can now choose to feel more personally empowered by wearing skirts, makeup and hair buns. As yet no illustration of baggage handlers in high heels – good luck with that fellas! In the cockpit, the person in the pilot's uniform could be male or female, but the odds are they are not the latter, since here is a statistic of interest: of Virgin Atlantic's 842 pilots, there are only 40 women.
'At Virgin Atlantic everyone can be who they want to be,' says the new policy. But can they be what
they want to be?
According to data sourced from the International Society of Women Airline Pilots, and a recent BBC business report, as of 2021, only 4.7% of commercial airline pilots in the UK are women. Globally, the percentage of female airline pilots stands at around 5.8% but this hides the fact that the country employing the highest percentage of women pilots is India, with 12.4%, followed by Ireland (9.9%) and South Africa (9.8%).
British Airways, EasyJet and Virgin Atlantic languish at the bottom of the international league tables with less than 6%, and all with significant gender pay gaps. EasyJet reported recently that, due to a post pandemic pilot shortage, they are launching an initiative to recruit more women.
These statistics are quite remarkable given the history of women aviators. In 1910, Orville Wright's sister Katherine had become the first woman in the world to fly, and she was followed by many enthusiastic others, though at that time aviation was considered a men's club and women had a hard time getting recognition. Because neither the military nor commercial airlines would accept female pilots, air shows and races provided the only opportunities for work. 'They faced discrimination, and sabotage when racing and there was a distaste generally for them,' one commentator recalled.
Nevertheless, in the early decades of the 20th century, many women aviators became well known through their achievements. For example, in 1921 in France, Bessie Coleman was the first African American woman to earn her pilot's license; Amy Johnson, in 1930, was the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia; Amelia Earhart flew solo across the Atlantic in 1932; Anne Morrow Lindbergh was the first American woman to earn a glider pilot's licence and in 1933 (while married to Charles) earned world record awards for establishing radio communications between aircraft (eg in West Africa) and ground stations (eg Long Beach); Nancy Corrigan trained hundreds of commercial pilots and by 1940 was training fighter pilots at Spartan College in Tulsa. There were many, many others, so by the onset of the war in 1939, women taking to the skies was far from new.
In Britain, the Air Transport Auxiliary was set up in 1940 to fly newly constructed war planes in a flyable but unfinished state from the factory to the maintenance units remote from enemy access. Once fully fitted with accessories such as radios, armaments and some secondary instruments, they had to be flown on to the front line squadrons. If, during combat service, an aircraft suffered damage but was still flyable, it was the ATA's responsibility for relocating it for repairs. Despite resistance from the RAF, women aviators for these hazardous flying missions were readily recruited, with the rationale that their use would release men for more publicly heroic roles.
The women's section comprised 168 pilots. They were restricted at first as to what aircraft they were assigned, to flying within sight of the ground, and below the clouds. Denied the use of radio for security reasons, flying as many as six different makes of planes in any one day was a feat of immense courage and skill. This did not discourage a male ground crew member from issuing a complaint against a woman pilot, who, he claimed 'appeared to be reading a novel' when she arrived at a landing strip. An investigation revealed 'she was reading the instructions manual'.
But their competence soon became obvious and eventually they were permitted to fly the full range from Hurricanes and Spitfires to four-engined bombers such as the Lancaster. Fifteen of these women lost their lives in the air, including the trail-blazing British pilot Amy Johnson, who was killed during her ATA service in 1941.
In Scotland there has been a sudden outbreak of interest recently in our own pioneer aviator, Winnie Drinkwater. Born in Cardonald in Glasgow in 1913, she qualified for a private pilot's licence aged 17. Two years later, she gained a commercial licence, making her the world's first female commercial pilot. By the end of 1933 she had also gained an instructor's certificate and a ground engineer's qualification, winning Scottish Flying Club trophies for landing and racing on the way.
One of Winnie's earliest jobs was giving joy rides from Prestwick beach. These rides were immensely popular, despite initial reservations that people would be wary of a female pilot in charge. Professor Dugald Cameron of the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Glasgow, reflecting on her career, noted that at that time 'aviation was far more open and far more sensible about having females in it' and indeed there was no reason not to employ them – 'apart from the stupidity of men'.
But Midland Scottish Ferries not only employed her, they agreed and made redress, after she had complained that it was unfair that her pay per week was three pounds 10 shillings, while the men were paid four pounds. Winnie delivered newspapers to the Highlands and islands, was an air ambulance crew member, flew monster hunters over Loch Ness and took part in a sea search for kidnappers escaping by boat. Flying a de Havilland Dragon, she became the first woman pilot to fly the inaugural Glasgow to London service and was a regular airline pilot on scheduled flights thereafter. There is a memorial bust and plaque in her memory in Clyde View Park in Renfrew, and in 2023 it was announced she would have a place in a series of planned interactive street art murals in Cardonald.
She was so remarkable in her aviation achievements that Francisco Short, the head of aeroplane manufacturers Short Brothers, while visiting Renfrew Airport asked to be introduced to her. And that was how in 1934 her amazing and promising career and potential further achievements in aviation came to a sudden halt.
She married him – and of course back then, married women stayed in their proper place, in the home.
Have things changed? In March 2022, the Royal Aeronautical Society and the University of the West of England published a report on a study of discrimination and the lack of gender diversity among pilots in the airline industry and in airline training. It makes dispiriting reading. Among the report's major findings were 'some extremely concerning reports of overt and covert sexism and sexual harassment towards women, including frequent reports of an old boys' network
and a lack of female role models and mentors. Structural barriers identified include: a lack of transparency around recruitment and selection; and the vast majority of airlines and training organisations refusing to allow pilot trainers to work part time which has a disproportionate effect on women'.
Clearly, wiping out gender discrimination will take more than sparkly eyeshadow and hair buns.
But we all might do something to improve the situation. A female aviator celebrated on one website was Maeghan, 'who has been obsessed with all things aviation since she received a toy aeroplane for her first birthday'. So if you are looking for a really engaging present for your small granddaughter or niece, how about something to open up her future horizons – give her a model plane.
You know it makes sense. Go on. 'See the world differently!'
Mary Simpson is Professor Emeritus of Classroom Learning at Edinburgh University